Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Burnt by the Sun

   I'd never seen a tarantula in the wild.
   Well, not a lone one.
   I had seen tens of thousands of them, waves of them, migrating to high ground in the annual spider "race" in Pinnacles California. 
  During the rainy season / the flash flood times, in the steep hills between the Central Valley and the Salinas, grandstands are set up in a state park where crowds gather to watch a tidal horde of arachnids move to escape the coming waters. 
   It's more you can imagine. 
   It's worse than you think. 
   It's truly stupendous. You get to see more spiders than anyone ever sees in a lifetime and you get to watch grown men scream. 
   But I'd never seen just one tarantula, on his or her own, in the California dust. 
   There's a park in south East County San Diego. Near Rancho something or other. It's a lot of desert acres sitting at the foot of a mountain the military uses for some purpose or another. Evidence that the only way to stop suburban development in California is with guns. 
   There's a willowed stream that runs aslant a gully, some riverine cliffs, some rare birds, a lot of coyotes, and an iron bridge that was built in Bethlehem PA and shipped to Southern California in the 20s. An early symbol of progress in this godforsaken land. 
   You can still see "Bethlehem Steel" embossed on the cross beams, arch rival of every Pittsburgh iron company. To reach the park from the nearby mega mall you pass right by them.
   I went for a walk at sunset. 
   Some would call it a hike. I think something called a hike should have the potential to kill you. 
    The drive from El Cajon to the park one could call a hike.
     This was a stroll. 
     I heard some birds. I avoided some beetles. I saw two uncut Pit Bulls and an asinine owner warding them away, I walked right up to the nose of a wild born Mustang, 15 plus years old on a late day walk with its kind equestrienne keeper. Sweet breath, soft eyes, along the trail he barely left a footprint.  
   Later, when the dark was falling as it does so quickly after a California sunset, I heard coyotes call to each other across the fields. Three different packs in the safety of the hills owned by the army, triangulating and wondering, I wondered, could they get to me before I recrossed that bridge and was I worth it, the meat vs the run and the fight?  
   Midway through the journey I came across a wasp the size of a hummingbird.
   A black fast attack demon of an insect, with bright orange wings. 
   An Apache helicopter of an arthropod. 
   A murderous exoskeleton with teeth and antennae and intent. 
   Dragging a dead tarantula three times its size across a cow path. 
   My first impulse was to run. My second was to stare. My third was, if that tarantula even twitches a limb, if it's got any life left at all, I'm gonna stomp that evil wasp and save me a spider. 
   But it was dead. And that wasp tugged it a full 15 feet. That wasp had to stop and regroup. It had to take a breather. Find purchase. 
   That's the fucking life force, I thought. 
   That's what things do to survive out here. Down here, in desert Alta California, in water free, Carl's Jr full San Diego. 
   I'm gonna remember that bug for a long freaking time. 
   And partly because it made me ask, What is it that drives people out into the desert? 
   Bugs, birds, tarantulas, even Coyotes, they don't have a choice. But why do we go? And more importantly, why do we stay? 
   In a place where we are guaranteed to die, if the AC, or the coolant, or the water runs out. 
   "Because it's clean." Said Lawrence of Arabia. 
    And I have to agree. 
    It's clean of us. 
    On the one hand, it's a place that denies kinship with our species. It tells us here is where you will fall. Here is where in a hundred years, they'll find your dried up carcass.
   And weirdly enough I think that's why a certain breed of people flock to it. It helps them vacuum pack their suburban dream- the home as an extension of the ego. The autonomous self made manifest by a three car garage, game room, studio and den, with a his and her master bathroom the size of a junior college. 
  All of it sealed and shut against a dangerous world. 
  For if that world is an actual desert, with no water, 110 degree days and killer avian bugs then how much more potent the home owner and his pioneer brood. 
   The home as the unabstract self. The brain and the soul and the human computer, in analog. Where one can sort and rearrange, sketch and legislate, doodle and dither for ever. 
   Where one can deny kinship with one's own species. 
   So it seemed when I was drunk. 
   On 112 degree sunlight. 
   I'd gone for a hike in the Mojave.
   And then it all switched over, and the denial of me, of "you", became a gift. 
   The heat shocks you into motionlessness, it encases you and you can feel the metal in the ground warming to receive your body, and somehow it's comforting. It's deliverance.
  The desert makes people glow. 
  Standing in a valley 10 miles across, flat as a seabed, with less foliate protein in its entire expanse than a back yard in Pittsburgh, you begin to entertain your own preciousness.
  You're a bag of fluid. A shining scarecrow in an oven made by the Gods. In all this dumb stone, dust, and wind, you speak. You sing. You sweat.
   It's humbling yes but at the same time, it elevates you. 
   I flex my hand in the sun and I want to cheer, My Christ will you look at that. What is this quintessence of dust? 
  The four major religions were born from the desert. Judaism. Hinduism. Islam. Christianity. All of them rose up out of the heat. 
  I wonder. Did we go out into those vast and beautiful wastes to find a God? Or get there and pretend we were one? 
  And if there is a God, or Godliness, maybe it exists only in the heat where our feet meet the sand, along that thin tissue between our selves and the glories of oblivion- air sun water-  right there all along as simpler people have known, in the dust itself among the lizards and the birds and the dogs and the bugs, all of whom sing and fight and sweat in their own ways, who all thrive where we can barely function. 
  In that hot and peaceable theater, can we still hear the faint rhythm of things as they should be? 
  Maybe that's why people go out to the desert, to the Mojave or the Sonora or the Chihuahua, to sit and listen, and wait. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A New Yorker

  My last apartment in NYC, in Brooklyn, had 10 radiators.
  My bedroom walls were lined with cast iron. I slept with a 2 foot gap between me and the metal. Between me and burn marks. Dating me had its risks.
  I did a lot of cycling. Almost no rental units have washers and dryers.
  I thought, "hmm, perfect way to dry stuff." 
   My landlord didn't agree. "Put nothing on top of the radiators. Nothing touches them." 
   So in a rare effort toward manliness I built shelves. Counter tops framed above and around the heaters. 
  Went down to the hardware store run by the Guyanans, conferred with David the son of the elder owners who'd occasionally give me slices of a jam filled cake on holidays I didn't recognize, dragged home the wood he assured me wouldn't buckle in the heat (it didn't) and built me some tan shelves around the black metal monsters in my temporary home. 
   And as soon as I finished them, I remembered that my parents had done the same thing. 
   Pittsburgh. 317 Chestnut St. The radiator in the dining room behind dad's chair, between him and the windows had a wooden "top" where mom packed her plants in rows to catch the southern light. 
  The rear radiator, a spectacular thing, ran the width of the living room with a 2x6 bent across it. A tribute to wooden suspension. And on top of that my parents piled their magazines. Scores of them. Hundreds. Starting on the right with the Nat Geos, the Smithsonian's, Dad's National Defense Quarterlies, Jane's Ships, left over LL Beans leaning into Consumer Reports, merging with mom's knitting instructionals and the odd radical tomes my brothers brought back from college and piled within all that sliding and sorting, like decks of cards in an abandoned casino were the New Yorkers. Years of them. Decades. 
   When I was young I sat by that radiator with my cats who liked the view and the heat. I sat there with them and pretended to have a desk. I'd slide my feet under the radiator, a little sting earned where the keel of the iron met my skin and I'd read my parents' leftovers. Magazines printed before I was born. Articles about countries that didn't exist anymore. I wondered, if I mailed a check to LL Bean for the price of a pair of boots in 1968 would they send them back?
    I couldn't believe people had been writing all this stuff, printing all this material, year after year after year. They hired people and sent them out. They paid people to tell other people about their vacations. You could get a job doing this. And there it all was for me to page through. To learn about the world from a hilly street corner in a collapsing steel town in Western Pennsylvania where almost no one was getting paid to do anything they used to do.
     The New Yorkers came to me late. They didn't have photographs. They reeked of adulthood. Little print. Black and white cartoons. For a child what could be worse?
   And then one day it happened, what could be better? 
    I often say to my friends I never want to be a child again. I don't long for childhood. I don't miss it. I don't want to run around in a smock and play with dolls and little toys, setting up campaigns and conquests or drawings car engines and guns or costumes and kittens, unconcerned with what adults care about because what adults care the most about, deep down, is love. The problem, or the promise, is that that love, adult love,  comes coupled with sex. 
  And suddenly love isn't easy. It's dangerous. It's epic. And often of course a tragedy.
   We love children and how easy it is for them to "love", how clear their emotions are but it's kind of like how "good" child actors are. They're not acting, they're just charming. They're playing tennis with the net down. They don't have the stakes that matter, that we're all gonna die for.
   One day, I was re-enacting Battlestar Gallatica episodes with my 12 year old buddies up in the attic or debating whether or not Vida Blue was a better pitcher than John Candelaria and then the next day I walked outside it was all just over and done with. I didn't want to play with Legos or build an empire of guns and tools and dirt and name it Narnia or whatever fantasy I was being fed lately, I didn't want to act out war movies scene by scene, or argue which Pittsburgh Steeler had the best head fake or the best arm. 
    I wanted to watch Laurie Murphy walk down the street. 
    I wanted to sit with her and see the finial hairs on the back of her neck catch the sun. 
    I wanted to watch her blink. I wanted to watch her breathe. Run. Flex. Bend. Be.
    Nothing else.
    Everything else was just wrapping, just foam flying off the sea. 

  And right about then the New Yorkers became very interesting. 
  They didn't come out every month like the Geographic. They weren't quarterly like dad's military magazines. The weren't even simply weekly. They had a day printed in the cover , " March 23, 1983" a specific day they'd been made back there in NYC and shipped to you to receive. 
   They talked about the previous week just passed in NYC , city politics, parties attended, artists interviewed, odd balls asked opinions of, all of it brought to us out there in the Appalachians and I couldn't quite wrap my head around why we were allowed to read it. I mean, we weren't NYers, how come we got a subscription? 
    Years later when I asked my Eisenhower republican father why he read such a lefty publication he answered , "so i can see what the enemy is thinking." 
  Like the guy afraid to cry during Charlotte's Web my dad privately loved the thing-  he read it cover to cover soon as it arrived. I can see him smiling to himself, wagging his feet back and forth - as clear a sign dad was content as your dog kicking when you scratched him- and I cursed myself that he and I now truly had something in common. 
  The painted covers, the waxed silky stock, the company typeface changing font mid page, the narrow columns, the two or three poems which appeared among the fiction and the non, and those ridiculous ads in the rear, tiny things from stores and schools too small you'd think to afford the rent. but there they were, the end. On my tombstone I wouldn't be upset if, "And he finished his New Yorkers" was carved across the top.
   They gave me diction and an education. They rescued me from countless hours trapped in airports, auditions, subways and bus stations. They've pulled me out of the depression and doldrums that tv only deepens. 
   And they taught me what was love. What printed love was. What passion could come up out of the page. The same passion that walked down the street, that hummed off the skin, came out of a sentence. A voice. Astonishing.
  I drove to Reading PA once because I wanted to see the house where John Updike had spent his childhood. He was from Shillington, a small town just north of Reading and it was still there, a tiny white framed workmen's home on a inconspicuous street. A team of architects used it as an office then but they let me wander around for an hour or so which now that I think of it makes me laugh. They didn't mind. Even when they found me sitting under the dining room table Updike hid beneath to watch the colors from his stained glass door move across the carpet. They didn't mind.
  All this to say it was this fellow Pennsylvanian, Updike who first made me blush or thrill to hear what it was to want a woman, to adore her, to try and describe what this other but same thing was, this femaleness that surrounds us all, all of a sudden transmuting from the maternal to the erotic and back again, and it was in the New Yorker that I first heard him speak and try to say it.
  I remember it like I remember breaking a bone, or running from a fight, or being caught out in a lie. When the truth gets tapped into your heart for better or worse, you never forget.
   Just a poem. Just a short story from let's say  December 14th, 1981, just for imagination's sake, a magazine mailed from a printing press in New York to Western PA and I held it in my hands leaning over the radiator as the cats purred and fogged the window and the metal burned my skin and I read Updike's story where a man lays gold Kuggerands across the soft mound between his wife's legs and they laugh, that finally they are rich, they are safe. This is what it was all for.