On June 17, 1859, an otherworldly blast of hot wind blew into Santa Barbara, California, from over the Santa Ynez mountains. Within minutes the temperature rose to 133°. Cattle fell into wells, birds dropped from the sky, women and children huddled into the Old Mission, and grown men toppled over in their adobe doorways–dead right there. Or so the legend goes. It’s an interesting story, this sudden simoom, even if the pointillist schools of modern thought have sought to debunk its veracity, dot by dot. But I like to believe it’s true enough, if only because it resuscitates some element of remaining mystery between the margins. Maybe it’s apocryphal, but something happened that day, something drastic, and cataclysmic enough that the memory of it hasn’t blended into the one color.
I’ve been feeling like a simoom–which is Arabic for poison wind–myself, lately, even if we’ve been blessed with cool temperatures and persistent summer rains. Call it an enduring bad mood, maybe something like a bull elephant in musth, which is characterized by irritability, restlessness, and unpredictability. Sometimes they go around smashing circus tents and safari wagons, or grinding excitable mahouts into burger patties. I haven’t smashed anything yet but I’ll admit to temptation. I take note of myself in musth when I see things like this candidate for the Rhode Island State Senate, shown below, being taken seriously. That is, being interviewed by serious journalists as if she were also a serious person, or a serious candidate for public office, someone that will move the bar for inspirational and effective leadership in the 21st century:
In the video version of this, which was released as a campaign add, she is vigorously twerking. She will get votes, and might even win. It’s also likely she has some great ideas for how she wants to raise your children, what you should eat, how you should worship, what kind of car you should be allowed to drive, or what you should do with your money and guns. Her name isn’t even important. Not really.
There is some good news: scientists say that musth is healthy for a bull elephant, a sure sign he is behaving as bull elephants have down through the various ages.
Meanwhile, the Quilt Show Mafia is in town. That’s a fun group until you cross one of them, which can happen at any time and for any reason, which is when they become more dangerous than the Peaky Fookin’ Blinders. They stand in the middle of the crosswalk like angry and geriatric Manoletés, waving their capes and shouting verses from Ecclesiastes at passing cars. A single Quilt Show Manoleté can back up traffic for two miles in either direction. They do it on purpose after abandoning their husbands in roped off little “Husband Sitting” sections around town.
Some of the husbands escape over to the local Bi-Mart, where they can be found wandering around inspecting cans of spray paint, peering deep into a stack of rubber garbage bins in the hardware section, or just standing stock still and gazing at an entire aisle of cat food like condemned prisoners in front of a brick wall.
I’ve never been in a simoom, though we did endure temperatures in the Persian Gulf that hovered in the mid 120s. Everyone had a despicable heat rash, red pustules appearing everywhere like a mass breakout of hives. And we got caught out in a sandstorm, which fairly buried us, and our gear, and our vehicles. There was nothing to do but cover your face and eyes and try to breath while ruminating on hot dogs and apple pie and the enduring glory of The Republic.
I like to start each morning with a cup of tea and heavy doses of catastrophe and gloom. There is nothing like existential terror to jumpstart a summer day. Lucky for me the various mouthpieces of the American media industry don’t have any supply chain problems and can offer truckloads of doom on time, every time. Monkeypox. Uvalde. July 4th parade massacres. The disappearance of Lake Mead. Soundbytes of Joe Biden saying anything, anywhere, to anyone. Video clips of Joe Biden shaking hands with thin air. If I don’t get enough of that before the first cup of tea, before I’ve even finished scrolling below the fold, I can always come back and listen to baristas screeching through bullhorns that the Supreme Court is illegitimate. And racist. Or, I can jump over to ESPN to read up on baseball scores and get bull-whacked by a racist screed written by a man who sees racism in tree trunks, and who has been, incidentally, arrested for choking out his wife in public. He wants to tell me about how awful the country that has enriched him, beyond measure, truly is.
One great uplifting moment came recently when I stumbled on a documentary film called Love, Tom. It was elevating in the way that great poetry elevates the heart and mind, brushes against the mysteries, and teases them into our imagination with beautiful arrangements of language. See the film. Keep your hanky handy.
Ibn Fadlan, commenting on the Rus Vikings he encountered on his travels up the Volga, noted that these early Russians were “the filthiest of God’s creatures. They do not clean themselves after urinating or defecating, nor do they wash after having sex. They do not wash their hands after meals. They are like wandering asses.” He went on to describe some of their other habits that he had witnessed, including the ritual sacrifice of slave women, which is mostly useful now for understanding what the Ukrainians are up against in the Donbas, a thousand years later. Putin has what looks to be pretty bad case of dyspepsia and doesn’t mind lobbing a few cruise missiles into apartment buildings or shopping centers for temporary relief. Hell, he will shell your entire city into rubble, block by block, because, as he told President Macron in a leaked phone call: Ukranian President Zelensky “came to power in a bloody coup, with murders and arson and people being burned alive.”
Putin may be crazy, but there is no reason to believe that he shakes hands with ghosts, or throws his lunch against the wall.
One of Putin’s most notable chums is Chairman Xi, whose communist party just announced creation of a device that can test party loyalty with facial scans. This is what is known as “emotionally intelligent computing.” Combined with the party’s social credit score scheme this looks like a big win for despotism. Sadly, it is easy to imagine that large swaths of our own Congress, and of course the National Basketball Association, will now fall even deeper in love with all things China.
Back in Santa Barbara, where buzzards circled on feasts of dead mice, rabbits, cattle, and birds, there was a fisherman out in the channel. He was caught in the simoom in his open boat, and it was reported that when he finally returned to shore he was scorched and covered in blisters. Which is a great hazard of traveling in open boats, one supposes, getting caught out like that in the poison wind and baking like bread in an oven.
But sometimes an open boat is a life saver too. It was just that–a life saver–recently for the Apassingok family up in Gambell, Alaska. Yupik hunters, they set out on the ice to hunt a walrus as they have for generations. It was treacherous hunting, as the tides and currents were shifting wildly, the ice was flowing around them, and just getting home at all seemed to hang in the balance of every decision. But they were able to find a walrus, shot it with rifles–an impressive feat on open water–then planed up on the leviathan and ran a harpoon into its head. Then they heaved, and heaved again, until they were able to pull the walrus up from the depths and tie the giant animal to the side of their open boat. And then they headed back to the shore, singing songs and listing heavily to starboard with the weight of the walrus. And when they finally got there the village came down to the icy beach to greet them. Everyone was there. Old women. Old men. Babies in fur hats. And it was down there, on the edge of all that heaving ice, where the father of the three Apassingoks said he was so very proud of what they had done–this father and his sons–because there was enough food in that single walrus to feed the entire village.