California Rest Motel

I met Arthur next to a pool. The pool was square. Pools are rectangular, bulbous, misshapen, inexplicable, infinite and occasionally massive. This pool was exactly even in length and width. I have not seen a pool like it. Aging California rest motels have a unique sense of appropriate.

I do not mean unique in today’s sense of the word but instead of its classical some might say unique sense. Today, “He is more unique.” “She is less unique.” Things are “more than unique.” Ideas are, perhaps most perversely, “most unique.” Unique now serves as a crummy synonym for unparalleled, peculiar and, as this paragraph proves, linguistic drift. We can now only look back to when people were [i]merely[/i] unique.

The hotel was unique and two hours, three minutes and twenty-nine to forty-five seconds from Palm Springs heading due east into the desert. Past Blythe: “Last Stop Before Vegas,” past the Navara Indian Reservation, past Happy Mickey’s gas station “next stop: fifty four miles.” Out past Salome, and “Christine’s Cactus Bar,” past Vulture Peak’s Middle School “school closed: heat wave.” Past ‘PTO: bringing back the field 2012,’ and across the street of a used car dealer’s flags whipping their last few threads away in coughing dirty wind.

Around the pool’s edge was a beautiful mosaic set between two runners of pumice that cracked and sizzled when it was wet. A young woman sitting near me, also looking at the mosaic, muttered, “Decorative shit,” and looked away before taking a long drink from a pink skinny plastic tumbler “JUICY BITCH.” There was nothing to be done about it, I decided. Serenely elegant, unfortunately present, the complexity of confidence, well.

In the lobby two people caught my eye. Taller was wearing polyester Capris, a leather bomber jacket and a wide brimmed straw hat. Shorter was wearing a black t-shirt, black sneakers with tall rubber soles and a pair of checkered black-white shorts that extended below his shin. Behind them were two bags Arby’s. “WHAT ARE YOU EATING” was obscured by a splatter of ketchup and BBQ sauce. They were passing out flyers.

I picked one up. “So what is this all about?”

“We are going to protest the city council. Don’t make no mistake, we are change. The speakers are,” he descended to a high pitched sotto voce, “from the college.”

“It isn’t about attention,” Shorter interrupted, “It’s about raising awareness.”

Taller pretended not to notice, “our town’s privilege needs a wake up.”

“Hard to measure—ever been so privileged?”

“I can tell, it’s the gas prices.”

“I,” Shorter paused, “agree. Mostly.”

A mediocre set of plastic-white tables, trying to convince us that we should pay a premium and sit on the sidewalk, screened the final side’s black gate, gray parking lot and brown desert—in that order. A few planters had sicked up a straggle of yellow. Pink lounge chairs lay scattered across the concrete. Guests did not lay they sank. As they walked to the dark blue restroom sign of the Californian Disability Care and Accessibility Act along their body lay a bloody red pattern striping.

Thomas, I would learn later that it was never Tom, decided that my first impression of him would be poor. He placed a towel I recognized as being the motel’s own on my portion of the motel’s artificial shade, plotted out with painful social precision. In his hand was a book about reaction formation. I walked over to him or, I tried walking over to him. Halfway there I began to run to save my soles more pain.

He smiled when he looked up at me. I asked him about his book as I lay down on my towel nursing my feet.

“It’s about reaction formation: Like when I tell myself I’m not going to drink very much but then end up naked on my back porch.”

I laughed. “At least it’s better than the front porch.” I am not a very funny person.

“This is my front porch,” he said and explained that he lived there. His parents owned the place.

“You don’t seem to have heard of chlorine here,” I said with an eye on the cloudy pool water.

“We don’t want to emphasize technology at the expense of traditional culture,” he said.

He may have thought that I was in a less literal mood than I was. “I see.”

“I wasn’t serious,” he said. “It was a joke. Irony.”

ihavewastedmylife

[By James Wright]

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

But Boredom

Voltaire observed that there are “three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.” He was not alone in believing “boredom is the root of all evil,” which Soren Kierkegaard called “eternity devoid of content.” To Kierkegaard eternity devoid of content precisely tracks his beliefs about death outside belief in God. Boredom as a gruesome death he shares with Marxist art critic and historian John Berger who asked “Is boredom anything less than the sense of one’s faculties slowly dying?”

John Berger may have well been echoing Sherlock Holmes, who also saw boredom as a type of slow degradation “My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work…” Or, less fictionally, Patrick Bigelow, in the “indifference of boredom, nothing matters, not even the nothing.”

Boredom as pure apathy is a rich heritage. Acedia, or a lack of spiritual energy, was first described by Evagrius, who gives us no definition, but writes that the demon of acedia:

Is the most oppressive of all the demons. He attacks the monk about [10 A.M.] and attacks the soul until [2 P.M.]… He makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then he compels the monk to look constantly towards the windows, to jump out of the cell, to watch the sun to see how far it is from [3 P.M.]… he instills in him a dislike for the place and for his state of life itself… He finds it would be better if he were not there.

David Miller’s boredom shares Evagrius’s essential quality of camouflage, boredom as a type of “pornography,” “hysterically converts into yawning affectlessness what would otherwise be outright panic.” In this he channels a long line of left thinkers, who deeply detested and feared a society of consumers without authentic moral values of their own, sunk in vulgarity and boredom in the midst of mounting affluence, blind to sublimity and moral grandeur, bureaucratic organisation of human lives in the light of what the French called “la petite science,” the puny science, a positivist application of quasi-scientific rules to society.

One conclusion of this part-fear-part-observation, perhaps not the best but my favorite, was by Arthur Schopenhauer,

“Human life must be some kind of mistake. The truth of this will be sufficiently obvious if we only remember that man is a compound of needs and necessities hard to satisfy; and that even when they are satisfied, all he obtains is a state of painlessness, where nothing remains to him but abandonment to boredom. This is direct proof that existence has no real value in itself; for what is boredom but the feeling of the emptiness of life? If life—the craving for which is the very essence of our being—were possessed of any positive intrinsic value, there would be no such thing as boredom at all: mere existence would satisfy us in itself, and we should want for nothing.”

But is boredom such a vice?

 

 

 

Four Years and Twenty-Three Days Ago

Four years and twenty-three days ago I made an extremely common mistake: I agreed to a friend’s request. He recommended that a couple we both knew, two of his friends and I visit a picturesque, elaborate, and once widely-celebrated establishment known for its hookah and cocktails. He and I went together while the three would attempt to come later. The weather was wintery, and cold and rainy. In effect we went during the sliver of offseason afforded by nature but, in any event, the place had already begun its descent to shabbiness and demolition.

The business was on the third floor. We walked up a groaning stair case. The grass needed cutting. The roof was a patchwork dating back to the 60s. The surface had been mauled by salt’s erosion. The businesses had two large doors, but the wood paneling was either peeling away or a patchwork of stain from ersatz replacements.

I agreed to this because my friend was an agreeable alcoholic. “I do not have a problem, I have a preoccupying hobby.” One day he drank a bottle of champagne, what was left of a bottle of red wine and started on a glass flask of Jack Daniels—while eating his way through gingersnaps and cheddar cheese. This began at eleven in the morning. At eight he fell asleep. At ten he woke up around the time we were heading out, and he followed. He drank three Old Fashioneds, four plain shots of bourbon, skipped dinner, and puked the next day until five. At five thirty he resumed his normal course. He admitted, “In the long run, gets rather unhealthy.”

He was agreeable in all ways but one. He smoked, which is no vice, but when he smoked he would put out his butts and place them in his pockets. We could smell him long before we could see him and while tobacco leaves may have an enticing aroma, there was nothing enticing about the lingering smell of burnt filter.

On entering we made the acquaintance of the proprietor, or some agent thereof, who was ugly, lazy and, really, quite accommodating. He monitored and curated a collection of faded couches, fraying armchairs, and coffee tables with new, plastic tops. In the corner was a shabby bar where the threadbare carpets had entirely given way. Bemusingly, not to be confused with amusingly, the lighting in each area is either too dim or too bright. The bar’s was too bright.

Since we did not see the others, we headed for the bar. The bartender was a small, middle aged man, smartly dressed, with an exceptionally lively, intelligent face – and a perceptible air of sadness. He was, like the rest of us, alone but also, I must say, deeply and truly lonely. My friend ordered a half dozen martinis to be prepared not sequentially but simultaneously—six shining glasses in a bright row, down which he would work, all the while talking at a rapid pace.

As he waited and drank the sun sank until it smiled crookedly like a fingernail. The declining light softened the sharp contrast of the establishment’s lighting and for the first time I was able to make a full inspection of the other patrons. There were a few Iranian businessmen, a few Pakistanis and a group of schoolteachers whose loud, crying laughter echoed horrifyingly among the quiet leather. Taken collectively I can say several things. First, at no time did any of the groups acquaint each other with another. Second, no social interaction proceeded beyond polite nods. Third, we made no indication except with the barest of turns that we noticed the passing of each other.

When I turned my attention back to the steadily thinning stems I noticed a new presence in our company. She immediately engaged me in her own conversation. Why she did this I cannot say for certain, but I believe that people perceive my mind as at rest. My face, which enjoys a default position studiously devoid of emotion, may imply that I am an endless supply of life without stress and obstacles, that I dream up what I want to do. Then I do what I dream or sometimes I do not but it is all baloo in the end. For this reason they tell me about themselves even though it is a fact that I do not know how to react to stories. My face brings characters and events to me and as long as I maintain my ability to look and listen people seek me out.

In literature and movies, sexual revelation is a matter of tact and occasion. Whether or not such candor is appreciated depends on the revealer’s attitude more than, even, the listener’s. But tact, mercifully, usually forbids us to tell other what one feels or, especially, Feels. Today I am never quite certain why memoirists are so eager to tell us what they do in bed. Unless the autobiographer has a case to be argued, I suspect that future readers will skip those sexual details that our writers have so generously shared with us in order to get to the gossip and the jokes. For this reason I am, these years later, equally mystified about her.

I have no recollection of all what was said, though much of involved hiking with her college roommates, but I remember her concluding with a small grin that “Come is a horrible word to apply to something ecstatic.”

On the Balcony

Some time ago, it does not matter precisely when, I was sitting on a balcony’s faux-wood floor. My condition was framed by two incredibly large and incredibly clear sliding doors. The walls inside were white. The floors were of a cheap white tile fashionable in the 70s and polished to a gleam. The glare from the sea was so pronounced that the room, as much as the sun above, seemed, by contrast to the balcony, extremely bright. I say this because I remember my worry that I would be construed as the type who, in spite the south side’s perfect view of blue sea, had taken to the darkest corner, which was, worst of all, outside. In other words a loon of a very peculiar and unfashionable type—as if I was looking to thread the needle between the refinements of a conditioned interior and the beauty of those south facing bay windows.

Inside there were paper bags half filled with aluminum wrappers and animal fries and empanadas and empty bottles of gin that were white rimmed from excitement and thirst. A single red cup lay in the middle of the living room and around it a red splash had dried along the caulking in rough coagulated lines. I took this in because one of my favorite whites had performed the task of eratsz damn and, having left my shoulders, was finished as a piece of conventional clothing. Beside, near an overstuffed red armchair, was a pale-blue cashmere top and matching dress, both understated and from a thrift store whose sign I could, just barely, discern among the sprawl. Indeed sweat drenched finery lay all over, even on the balcony.

I listened to the following conversation that took place below and across the street outside a bar that was notable only because it required everyone to wear shoes.

“It’s an hour to Tijuana,” he said.

The other, “yeah.”

“We could spend the night out there.”

“Yeah,” a half pause, “nah.”

A laugh, “Nah, yeah.”

“We planning to come back?

“I was thinking we could get a little sliced. There’s a nice house my cousin owns. We could be back Sunday to see Kim.”

“I guess. Will Kim be down from West Covina on Sunday?”

He then said “No.”

I was unsure in whose favor the dialogue had been resolved, or if it had been resolved at all.

The faux-wood was beginning to heat up. I felt an individual drop of sweat work its way down my body. I tried stretching but my leg had gone to sleep. I did not stand up because my unspecific phobias seemed to be rendering everything I did in my space useless.

I waited. I remember that I did not like to wait and I despised waiting. I still do. I attribute this to uncomfortable childhood experiences. In line I was assaulted by my body, that thing, whose eating, pissing and sleeping crises (did I mention eating) reached a fever pitch as they acquired an ever more solid stake correlated to how far I was from the front.

Perhaps there was an attraction to waiting. It tastes just the way it looks: responsibility no longer rests with you, and freedom from responsibility can cause incredible tipsiness. It’s easier than putting up with everything. Easier to talk. But when the time comes your knees will be wobbly. And depression—a perpetual depression—until the next time responsibility is foisted. This peculiar effect has no name but that it exists in German as a compound word I have no doubt.

It was a long while later when Alex arrived. He had on a pair of khaki chinos and no shirt. Over his khakis sat a pair of assless chaps but with cheap, vinyl leis connected by twine. He had on a pair of wide, CHIP-gold Vans that he wore like flip flops with the heel-side pressed down. While he sat he plucked the leis’ purple stained flowers. An hour passed before he started sending small, discrete piles of leis off the ledge onto the street below us.

On reflection the most curious aspect of his arrival was this: I did not acknowledge it. Although he was in my direct line of sight I continued working out a discernible pattern to the sprawl that extended up around our house’s hills. I didn’t talk to him. I am large, imposing I suppose. I don’t talk a great deal to people I don’t know. I am invisible, perhaps out of fear. Most of my sentences drift off, don’t end. It’s a habit I’ve fallen into. I don’t deal well with people. I would think that this appearance of not being very much in touch was probably one of the reasons he finally stood up. “Yeah, well.”

This incident, which I often embroider to include an imaginary detour, exactly describes those slow summer days to me.

Sunshine

It is a fact that not once in my life have I enjoyed the sunshine. Every moment while I sit underneath that singing star makes me regret the old days when I was safe underneath a large, protective blanket of clouds. Or inside. When I grew up it seemed to me that the only advantage of the desert was that nobody ever wanted me to go out into the heat. I was safe, like some form of tortoise, and lived in relative peace.

The desert’s drawbacks—such as its endless dust and grasping pedipalps–assured all its resident this one immunity. But whenever I left the desert, especially with friends, I knew that at any moment, unless rain was falling with enough zest, someone, probably some man, might say “Let’s go!” in that sharp, short imperative tone I could not dream of hearing in any other connection. This desire seemed especially common whenever they saw someone comfortably settled in an arm-chair, reading.

I admit I was free to say, simply, “No.” Saying no to old friends is easy because I establish the habit early and often. No to new friends is easy because they do not yet matter. Unfortunately, this logic is unsatisfactory in a very particular way. Once you forget to say no, or more likely the no is quickly forgotten, then no is no longer a path left open. “I went last time,” “I wish I could, this time,” and so on are unconvincing. They are like dead birds and, once flung, simply return to the ground with a dull thump. Since this state of affairs can’t continue forever it follows that a single moment of weakness, once started, leads to a sweaty career of disillusionment without end.

Going out on a bright, beautiful day may be an excellent and appropriately ambitious task by those who practice it. My objection to it comes in two parts. First, no matter the temperature on stepping outside the air is thick and hot. It is like wandering into a place where you do not belong (and it is like that place exactly because outside is that place where you do not belong). Invariably, as if only to increase the heat and sweat of all those involved, and this seems particularly true on days when the day is especially bright and oppressive in its cheeriness, people hug each other and shake hands, big grins and a whoop here and there: “What a beautiful day! Good to see you, boy! Damn good … and I mean it!”

Second, on days where there is no escape from that unlidded eye the brain stops working. On a cloudy day, in a cozy café with a warm cup of coffee the conversation is always interesting. No gossip, no matter how dull, is unbearable above the gently tickling waves of steam. But on a bright day, walking around? The same man who entertained me with stories of past, present and future now says that A. (someone we both know in an unconcerned way) is a thoroughly good fellow. Fifty steps further on, he adds that A. is “one of the best guys I have ever known.” We walk another block and he says that Mrs. A. is a charming woman. “She is one of the most charming women I have ever known.” We pass a shop. He reads “Cakes and Ale.” We pass a street sign. He points at it. He says “Commerce Drive.”

“I would rather not,” but unlike Bartleby I am not willing to follow the statement to its conclusion. Instead I rely on the self-preservation of my friends. Unfortunately sunshine transcends reason. They go outside and remain. There is no destination in mind. Instead they answer from within with curt cogency. “There is no destination when we are in the sunshine. There is no ulterior motive. We are in the sunshine because of the mere fact that there is sunshine.” Existing underneath the sun is an indication of their happiness, elation or character. But while they swell with pride their brain is finding ways to escape and, eventually, abdicate altogether.

It is little wonder that the brain falls into a senseless slumber. It cannot bear such a body until it has been deposited out of the sunshine again. In the sunlight the brain becomes completely alone and if there is any wish, it is for the day of execution so that it is greeted with, at least, something—even if the something is  These signals from the brain are interpreted and reinterpreted into peculiar statements that are terrifying if taken in any other context. For example, a close friend, reclining in the sun, said with equanimity “I cannot keep my eyes open.” “I feel… as if I may just die.”

I contrast this with the days of overcast. Then the mind is alive and the senses are (thankfully!) quiet. Ensconced within cozy layers the day seems far off, away from the present and so lends itself to contemplation. The day’s gentle indifference is not hidden behind the map-white consumption of the world.

I do not hate sunshine. I will go out for a walk, occasionally, when time demands. If a few strands of sunlight infiltrate the living room I will not huff the blinds closed. I enjoy the light sensation of watching the horizontal lines of my blinds plop, one by one, up and over my book during an afternoon. At midday the sun will do any number of helpful odd jobs for you. These jobs are useful, especially during a light cleaning, but when you are bandying about outside to gratify the soul’s pride, such as it is, there is every reason for despising it.

But, pending a time when no people desire for me to go out into the sun, or I have no wish to go and see any one, I will never willfully go out into the scorch. It is an indulgence that I am confident I will never acquire, to my great benefit.

Of course, I have written this out in the sun.