Friday, January 16, 2015

the desert

It was quiet there, almost silent. You could hear everything there was to hear. At the nice, calm house, planted amongst the cacti, the gargantuan refrigerator is the only unwelcome guest. It groans loudly; with its unnecessary volume, it is clear it hasn't read the room.

The desert is not empty. There is so much wildlife. There is fragrance. There is noise. All relative; a bird in a puddle like a waterfall.

Everything here feels substantial. I look at rusty old trucks parked amongst the Joshua Trees and dirt, and they are still material. The rusty gears and brakes, the woodwork. J. is fascinated by the interior carpentry. The car is still there, an ungainly souvenir at the end of the world. At the house, the concrete floor is reassuring. Living here must feel solid. You are rooted. In other places, there are movers and shakers. Here there are settlers. How does one grow, rooted like this. And why do the trees slowly form spirals.

The desert is not untouched by industry. I watched the rise of a huge, low red moon from the parking lot of a mechanics' garage. We were there for one of our tires, which needed to be treated for a caught stone. It had caused a horrible scream. This was embarrassing even in the desert. Look at that moon, I told the mechanic. He said, Yep, the stars in high summer are so low you feel you can touch them. He told me he comes from Nebraska. We spoke lightly in the mild dusk air. The side of this highway is friendly.

We drove through steep dark nothingness to Pappy & Harriet's saloon. Suddenly, a crowd. Bearded young men dressed like mechanics but they probably design graphics or manage bands. The thin girls in floppy hats are smiling, amused over spilled salsa, ladies of the canyon. We slid into chairs and one beer was enough. We were sundrunk.

The next morning, we wandered into a trading post and a leggy young bearded man dressed like a mechanic played his guitar and strolled the shop floor, which sold funny old things, country western records and army surplus clothes and salt and pepper shakers and tattered old flags. J. bought a cap that makes him look like a mechanic and I figured he just wanted to interact with the handsome man who resembled a fair-haired Townes Van Zandt.

Across the street, at Crossroads Cafe, the boys and girls look like rock climbers, and they probably are.

At the Integratron — charmingly ridiculous destination — we laid with the others ("join us!", J. joked), heads towards the middle, spokes in a mystical wheel. I argued with J. in front of everyone that he took so long taking off his Converse hi-tops that we lost our places in the first ring. Later, I was glad we weren't in the first ring. The leader, who was about to give us our 'sound bath' by 'playing the crystals', said some incredible things: You should find your own highest frequency. You may choose to leave time and place… Just tell your mind you'll be back. Just lay there and marinate in yourself.

Southern California offers ways to indulge yourself you didn't know existed.

J., an Englishman, revealed the many ways he doesn't know how to relax: meditation, hot tubs, massage. But the mellow vibes of an impromptu BBQ at Anh and Eli's are impossible to resist. We were in Mt Washington and it felt calm. We listened to Arvi Pärt and other adult sounds. Matt Wolf showed up and we laughed at things that aren't even that funny. It's all about the delivery. When Anh told us the name of her little adobe oven, it was hilarious.

We drove from the bright red sky of L.A. to the deep, bright blue Pacific sea of Big Sur.

We kept seeing two birds flying in tandem. They pair together at intricate angles across a stateless sky. We listened to the same few CD's over and over. You know that experience. Lyrics that would normally overtake me like a speeding car were now tailgating, giving me pause to consider them again. I began to think they actually have true deep meanings. Freedom's just another word for nothing less to lose.

I was happy out west, was I losing my critical edge.

California, you range heights and temperatures. In your big space, my molecules are so loose I might just disspiate. I cling to traffic reports and the uncertain brakes on my dad's car and realise I am attempting to fix myself to things. Like the two birds who stay close in the sky, which they don't have to do, for the sky goes on and on. They are duetting. I think of homesteading. The far sights and close comforts of pioneers. These roads, stretched out but never resting.

Friday, January 9, 2015

the arrival

We were in Johnson Valley maybe, somewhere before Yucca, somewhere epic, headed to Joshua Tree. Over a crest, under a bright pink sky, our car seemed to lift itself like hands praising, and then we careened into a valley of big friendly rocks. The music was a song I'd forgotten about, Fairport Convention, singing something like h-eyyyyyyy, gonna make it e-asssssssy. It's important that the music comes out of the car, as if the machine, with which you have formed a kind of unity, is singing through you. For me, the arrival into wilderness is never gradual. There is always a moment. Here was the desert — wide, rocky, red-skied and stretched-out like spread fingers. But my exaltation was underlined with anxiety. Maybe it was that whole bag of Combos I ate on the drive down. I could feel the pulse of those polysyllabic chemicals. I began to felt anxious that J., our cameraman, was too struck by the roller coaster thrill of it all to capture any of it on film or video. I often feel anxious about documentation. That's why I could never be a photographer, relying on equipment. I could never be dependent on tools. Capture is a hunting word. With writing I hunt with bare hands. You feel your subject squirm, know its slipperiness. I can't control a camera, let alone J.'s cameras. I worried that we should be recording this ecstatic descent, share it on Instagram maybe, broadcast it to people in places less remote, not so sublime. The moment passed, and I began to consider whether the experience was too big to be framed anyway. You can depict the point of a mountain but not its meaning. As the evening unfolded, and over the following days — pricked with cacti thorns and burned from the unblocked sun — that need to share faded away. In the desert, I eventually lose such compulsions. I become smaller, the landscape more expansive. It continually asserts that it can't fit into a square. I may try to write peaks, bends, dips, black trees, bent trees, twisted trunks, alert rabbit ears, patches of snow, dry lakes, flat beds of sand, dust, a big moon, an empty sky, but then nothing empty, everything almost too full. Then I lose words, gracefully, and in their place comes a kind of thinking.

All of that which I hope to achieve in the desert requires an arrival I can never describe.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

san francisco, now

First, I was convinced that things were the same. Rebecca Solnit was wrong! Evening in the Castro and I encountered chubby men with Amistead Maupin moustaches, a stern tranny working at the pharmacy, nutty types trailing stuffed toys on the sidewalk, a hairy young bartender who seemed to grow out of his huge motorcycle boots like a flower from a pot. How great, I exclaimed. It's still weird. In England, I averred, only the wealthy can afford to be eccentric.

We walked a little, drove a lot, were reminded of this and that. For me, the overriding feeling of being in San Francisco is of trying to find something, and the sense of loss when I never did.

I've walked every street of this city, J. kept proclaiming. What about this one, I would challenge at each turn. A steep passage in the old town near the bay, a vast and forlorn avenue on the outskirts. He'd hesitate, almost admitting defeat, then, squinting out the passenger seat window: yes I have!, he'd gloat. A city of this size, it feels as though one can conquer. In his path-beating, J. was transformed into a temporary giant, like a sturdy thumbtack pressed into a paper map.

One morning we watched the sun rise over the city, and I could feel then, as that bright sphere pricked up steep rows of houses, how the sparkle of these up-and-down hills had led us to believe the city is magic.

On Valencia Street, as cold morning broke into bright afternoon, the signs of change began to flow: Some old businesses have survived, but the most ornery — the socialist book shop, the lesbian bar — have closed or will be soon. And then, the people. The people who close down bookshops. We scoured their outfits for clues. I kept giving people the benefit of the doubt — maybe he's in public health? she could be like Cat Power? — but J. caught the whiff of inauthenticity.

After lunch at the vegetarian Japanese restaurant – still good, but now crowded — we walked past a young man in a unicorn headdress. Look!, I cried. A unicorn! That's old-school San Francisco!, I claimed. J. glanced and then looked away. It's not, he said, downtrodden. It's not the same. To him, it's joke.

You mean, I asked, he's a fake unicorn.

Yes, J. said. Exactly.

At Aquarius Records, the vibe was pleasant but with a hollow ring. I thought of my afternoons spent here. The sun would burn through the windows and threaten to melt the vinyl. The woman who used to run the place got a job with Apple Computers. There is still an old poster on the wall for a Mountain Goats in-store gig. Back then, that was my name for a certain kind of boy: mountain goat. The kind with a scrappy beard and gruff clothes and strong smell. Now we scanned for mountain goats like we searched for real unicorns, but the beards, though frequent, were tamed. The new beards are neat, polite. I miss that wayward, stubborn neck hair. I remember the city smelling of incense and armpit.

A couple of nights later, a couple doors down, we found ourselves in a buzzing restaurant where we ate small plates with many ingredients. Our waitress wore a leotard top that flaunted her extroverted bosom. She was on the ball, and each of her words was accompanied by a gesture. "Spicy" was palms out and shaking down her her sides. She described a cocktail with a series of phrases matched by motions strung together like hula dancing. "Smooth. Sexy. Just what you want." She danced around the floor — literally, pirouettes. A silent and slow Mexican cowboy, handsome like he was out of Kansas City Trucking Co., slipped plates onto our table with the palm of a croupier. The waitress would whiz pass and coo: "wild stuff!" or just "whooooooooooo!" The food was tasty but rich.

Customer service in San Francisco has become highly polished, performative. You will be told in detail about the origins of things and the method of preparation. Your servers will ask where you are from and inevitably will have lived there themselves. Camaraderie is signalled by a perfected knowing glance. Your servers will still delight in the food or drink they are presenting. I heard a slow-pouring barista tell a young woman who had chosen the Guatemalan beans: "that Guatemalan just wants to hug you." He gave her a perfect knowing glance.

Rebeca Solnit is right. There is a kind of bloodletting going on in this city. I'm no longer the right match for what it was, but I don't even speak the language of what it's become. It's a problem of scale. San Francisco is small, so it's hard not to take it all personally. Each new asshole breaks your heart. The hills threaten to buckle under the weight of change. There's always that fear of earthquakes.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


New Year's Eve played out quietly. The seafood went down a treat. We didn't drink a great deal. As planned, I drank my special ale from Oregon, which is called Total Domination. Then, with my family spread across two armchairs and one big couch, we watched a Poirot. I think it must have been a pretty exceptional episode, set as it was in a characterful Swiss hotel. There was even a funicular. By about 11:30, the episode hit its climax — with Monsieur gathering all the suspects together for the big reveal. By this time, my fellow audience members had either fallen asleep (Jamie, fast) or begun multi-tasking (mom, for instance, clearing out old emails). I was rather enjoying myself but should have predicted what was coming next. Everyone woke at the end, and with ten minutes until midnight, asked me to summarise the plot for them. When I did so, they started challenging me, on points such as the admittedly dubious psychiatrist-and-criminology-student-in-cahoots thread. I can't help it, I retorted at their incredulous reactions to Agatha Christie's wide narrative twists and easy sleuthing. We rang in midnight drowsily, me refusing to watch other people celebrating in crowds on teevee, each of us raising whatever was to hand, a glass of water or tepid cup of tea. I've never been one to stand on ceremony so all of this suited me fine. And even though it was mildly frustrating that no one believed my explanation of the psychiatrist's ulterior motives, I felt quite contented and ready for sleep.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

i went home

I'd neglected to bring a light jacket. My parents told me to look through their things. Keep looking, shouted my dad. You'll find something. I had definitely arrived in light jacket terrain, carrying the weight of a northern winter with me. Try the closet in the den, he suggested. The den is the room where he does taxes and things. There I found a North Face down-lined gilet. Navy. Made in USA. Two staples in the collar, meaning it was found used somewhere. A second generation score. I've basically worn it ever since. It's very comfy.

The neighbourhood feels exactly the same. It's always been very quiet. But in truth new generations have arrived, affluent young families, skilled labour from mathematically-minded countries. The warm, low ranch houses remain, while newer ones are predictable: stucco Roman/Mediterranean/whatever monstrosities. Older family homes stand in stubborn disrepair. I once knew them quite well, now they worry me. A child's rainbow in the window of a house in which the large appliances have been pulled from the sockets. The shudder of an open cellar door. A white picket fence knocked down and lying flat, ridiculously.

These trees I've known for years. They're older now too but continue to grow taller. Approaching my parents' house, I thought: they 'own' so many trees.

Amongst other things, I've learned: don't try to show your family youtube clips. They're just not interested. Who is, anyway.

I got a huge, gurgling smile out of my newborn nephew, apparently pleased to see me. I got it!, said my dad, who was filming on his phone. But in the end, the video actually captured the before (my mom demanding that the baby look at me) and the after (her saying how he loves my big face). The spontaneous moment, those bright eyes, I'll have to keep in my memory.

It will remain. I was lazily reading Patti Smith, and: "It occurred to me that nothing was more beautiful than a newborn's smile".

His father plays him music on the piano and ukelele. The kid, I'm sure, will be in a band.

J. and I sleep in a wide bed in a dark room with a window that looks onto a quiet street. A contented tree stands in the way of a view of nothing. My sister says beware of moths. I put my wool in zipped containers. Will that help. I wake from deep sleep with banal enlightenments like: you've got to forgive others and yourself. Seriously, I had this thought. And then I had the vision of swimming in a river, toward the side near the bank, struggling and turning around and around and thinking, I've got to be in the middle, in the centre of the stream. Then I will flow.

I don't think this means I'm going soft. I was patently unimpressed with the woman driving around the Whole Foods parking lot holding a sign out her SUV window. The sign said something about sharing/love/today. She made the peace sign with two fingers. So what hand was driving. She called out her message of love. What's wrong with her!, I demanded. J. kept saying, she looks like Meg Ryan.

As we exited the parking lot, a couple with two young children also held a sign. Theirs said that they need money.

The state is enduring serious drought but the water level in toilet bowls is so high I keep thinking poo is going to graze my thighs.

I took delight when, as we drove, J. cried, watch out for that quail!

I said I bet you've never had need to say that before. He points out some local fashions based on signifiers of comfort and efficiency: suburban amblers in wide visors, cyclists with rearview mirrors on their sunglasses as they sit for coffee.

Up in the city, and back in a bar we used to frequent called Moby Dicks, I'd forgotten how much I love pinball.

Soon enough, I realised that everyone around here wears quilted gilets like my own new one — puffer vests — and I feel slightly less special, but native, somewhat appropriately.

Friday, December 26, 2014