Alert readers have noted that I haven’t written a blog post in some time. Several concerned humans asked me if I’m “all right,” which I took to mean a concern about my health. When you’re 74 and diabetic, you can anticipate a certain fretfulness when you disappear from your own blog for three months.
So the first news is that I’m fine. I’m dealing with the usual depredations of age, but aside from that, everything is hunky dory. Also, I live in the same house married to the same fabulous woman. The children are doing well. So, like, nothing to see here.
But I’m reassessing my relationship with writing. I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember; I put out a neighborhood newsletter when I was nine. Because it was easy for me, and because I was callow, I didn’t think about my attitude toward writing, and what it meant to me personally. My callowness continued until about eight weeks ago, which is a long time for callow to survive.
We’d been to Cuba (great time! great place!) and I obviously thought I could get a column out of it. So I wrote one, and it was mostly crap. There were holes in it, and I struggled with filling them, and the deeper I got the more bullshit I produced. I decided to wait a day and come back to it with a new eye or a new brain. That day became a week and then two weeks, and I was beating myself up about not being able to finish and wondering if my diminished skills had to do with aging. Dementia! Alzheimer’s! Brain tumors! All three!
So I decided to take a break. After all, I was not required to write. I had no employer and the blog generated no income. So why not? Of course, I worried about my very kind and generous readership, so then I thought; They’re kind and they’re generous, they’ll understand. And so then I sailed along, doing what I always do except not writing anything, beyond the occasional Twitter post. I got retweets! So that was my validation.
So I began to think: Why do I write? Sure, I get to communicate my political ideas, but anybody can do that. Guys in bars do it all the time. Is it to be amusing? I do enjoy being loved for my writing, because I was convinced that nothing else about me was lovable — or so I thought. Think? Low self-esteem is not susceptible to praise from others. Took me a while to learn that.
And the semi-continuous praise is a decision-clincher. I pick Column A; making money and hearing good things about ME, or anyway about my writing. Seems better than column B, broke and depressed. Better than I thought I’d do.
And I’d like to blame part of my block on Donald J. Fucking Trump. He presents an unpalatable choice for light fiction writers everywhere. If you avoid him, if you try to write about over-priced produce or early-career Lady Gaga or annoying phone scams, you wonder whether you’re part of the problem, providing momentary amusement during the age of rising totalitarianism. Clown shows at the edge of the pit of darkness.
On the other hand, giving in to the temptation to skewer the president (or his cronies) with your terrible swift prose-sword, channeling anger into mockery, well, join the club. Have you seen the New Yorker covers: Trump being thrown out of heaven, Trump turning into a sandwich, Trump gunning down Mexicans. OK, maybe not the last one. The magazine can’t seem to get enough of this stuff, even as its longer pieces add to the general air of gloom. Have you ever read a New Yorker piece on climate change? Did you want to kill yourself right then, or wait until after dinner?
I don’t want to be a traitor to #TheResistance. I want to write penetrating satire, or powerful invective. But (have you noticed?) that field seems to be overcrowded. I’m sure we all want to read big foot pundits’ view of Trump’s transgressions, because — wait, no we don’t. What you can say that has not been said? Besides, in reality, everyone’s waiting for Robert Mueller to take the malefactor on the longest perp walk in history, so we can all spit on him as he walks by. But Trump prose? A chump’s game. On the other hand, non-Trump prose: Diletante! Arriviste! Phony leftist! Understand, all this yelling happens inside my head. It matches in intensity the yelling outside my head. God it’s hard to find a nice quiet place to think.
On the other hand, pure retirement is great. I’ve spent 50 years of my life working against deadline. I didn’t realize how stressful it was. Even now, working without deadlines but still with expectations, didn’t feel that great either. And no, my biggest deadline is trash pick-up and keeping the house stocked with paper products. I read a lot, I watch TV a lot, and I screw around on the Internet a lot. I enjoying traveling. Plus, live music, good meals with friends, big movies in big movie theaters. I don’t have a retired guy hobby, like woodworking or garden design or hanging around the courthouse trolling for interesting trials. I kinda tried to get a project, but I rejected one of them, and one of them rejected me. I didn’t try very hard, because it’s summer and the garden looks amazing.
It all started with a mistake. In the 70s, when we lived in Los Angeles and worked against deadline, we often spent weekends at Joshua Tree National Monument, as it was then called. The park was quiet, with sparkling vistas, beautiful and barren, and a person could walk virtually anywhere — and, as we discovered, sleep anywhere. Pick a patch of sand; lie down.
Mostly, though, we stayed in a fetchingly ramshackle motel at the edge of 29 Palms. It too was quiet, with identical whitewashed bungalows heated by wood fires. There was an attached restaurant for dinner, where lots of Marines from the nearby military base spent the weekend drinking. It was funky and lovely and just a bit weird. The desert is a bit weird too. That’s why I love the desert.
Stuff has changed since 1981. Joshua Tree (now a national park) is the fastest growing park in the system. People from L.A. have caught the fever. You gotta make motel reservations pretty far ahead during flower season.
And here’s the mistake. Somehow the name of the odd bungalow motel where we stayed in our youth became transmorgified from 29 Palms Inn (its actual name) into Joshua Tree Inn, in the town of Joshua Tree. That inn was where we were in fact going to stay. It was a one-story stucco-and-exposed wood building along the highway and unprepossessing from the outside. We looked at each other. “I’m sorry,” I said.
My heart sank, but Tracy bravely marched in. She’s good at bravely marching.
Enter motel. Look around. Some kinda plaques on the wall, really a lot of plaques. Woman asks about our help-related needs. Reservation, see your credit card? Then, yes, here it is; the Fred Astaire suite. (Yeah, I got a suite. I’m too old not to get a suite if that’s what I want. I can afford it. I can’t afford a BMW X2, but I can afford a larger room in a still sleepyish desert community. What is it with you? Nag, nag, nag. That’s my inside voice).
“You know that this is the place where Gram Persons died.”
She just kind of tossed it out there. My experience, admittedly limited, is that hotels tend to cover up the fact that famous people died in them. Might make the place look, I dunno, raffish. The Beverley Hilton is mum about which room Whitney Houston died in; the Hard Rock Hotel in Florida does not reveal precisely where Anna Nicole Smith met her end. We do know that Oscar Wilde died in room 16 of the Hotel D’Alsace in Paris, where his last words were reported to be, “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.” Not perhaps the best advertisement for the hotel, but he probably didn’t say it then, or at all.
“It’s room 8,” said the clerk cheerfully.
So the story, as augmented by some Actual Research: Parsons, having completed an album and celebrating a period of relative sobriety, did what many addicts would do: Went to a motel in the desert, drank a lot of tequila and overdosed on heroin. His body was stolen at LAX by his manager, Phil Kaufman (not that one) (nor that one), who had pledged to Parsons that he would cremate him in Joshua Tree Park.
It was done, but not well: Some 35 per cent of Parsons remained, and it was taken back to New Orleans and buried there.
And yes, right outside the door of number 8 was a memorial, a metal sculpture in the form of a guitar, a bunch of plastic flowers and beads and predictable memorial knick-knacks. On the ground was a piece of concrete with the words “Safe at Home,” the name of an early Parson album.
We passed it by every morning on our way to breakfast. “You’re in the desert now,” it murmured.
I partially grew up in the desert. (I also partially grew up at the seashore. I’m a California lad.) I was enraptured by its landscape. It has hardly any reality at all, so every juxtaposition is unexpected. It is oddly comfortable with death; even life in the desert exists in the margins, doing all the work of living during the dawn and twilight hours. And the people who choose to live there want to live their way, surrounded by whatever possessions make them happy. And there’s lots of real estate to work with; property lines are notional at best. Even the park is open 24 hours a day, because it would be fruitless to do it any other way.
Artists love the desert, partly because it’s such a large canvas, partly because you can do almost anything that doesn’t hurt farm animals. And, in an odd way, that makes everything about either art or death or both. So a memorial to a dead rock singer on the grounds of the motel where you’re staying: absolutely normal.
And so, that very evening, following a travel strategy we call “taking suggestions,” we went to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum, a few miles north of town but still essentially unfindable without Mr. Google sitting in your lap. It’s out beyond the scruffy Joshua Tree suburbs, where every yard looks like it might have artistic intent.
Noah Purifoy was an interesting dude. An African-American, he first came to attention with a series of works that he carved, sometimes literally, from the ruins of the 1965 Watts Riots. For 20 years he was active at the intersection of art and social justice.
Then he had a moment (I assume), and moved to Joshua Tree and started Noah Purify’s Desert Museum. He made art out of the bountiful harvest of the desert: tires, refrigerators, cafeteria trays, beer kegs, automobile springs, radiators, water fountains, computer monitors, large pieces of plywood, televisions, etc. True desert beings, we went at twilight, when the light and the temperature were perfect. Not so perfect for taking photographs, but Tracy did find one usable image:
And there are plenty more here. We wandered around until it was too dark to see the ground, sitting in the “rooms,” entering the “doorways,” wandering backstage at the “theaters.” There were three other people there, all French (because: perfect) who were, I believed, envisioning the end of the world and quite liking it.
Every day was like that; heck, all my days in the desert, in Pear Blossom or Palmdale or Indio or Pahrump, have been tinged with surrealism. Sitting in the sunset, looking at a merest sketch of the world, sans water, sans leaves, sans crops, sans animals, sans almost everything except the will to survive. When survival meets landscape, we got some primordial stuff going on.
But I am holding something back. On this trip to the desert, I lost my mind. Stay tuned.