“You are watching people go through withdrawal from the emotional addiction to the myth of certainty.”
I let the dogs out late the other night and looked up in the sky to see a train of satellites — forty, fifty, sixty of them — racing through the stars. It is a testament to effective quarantine — and a purpose-built informational firewall — that I didn’t know what I was seeing, and so had one of those increasingly rare moments in life where everything was startlingly new, and fresh, and even exciting. Watching this unexpected and bizarre spectacle, I said, outloud and involuntarily: “What the fuck?”
The last time I felt that sudden and overwhelming sense of virginity, of loss of control, and of possibilities beyond easy reckoning, was during a fairly bad rollover car accident which was also a thing that came out of nowhere.
Standing in my front yard, while the train of satellites went sailing overhead and the dogs went sniffing around the pine trees for a decent place to piss, I thought WW3 was underway or perhaps the balloon had finally gone up on the long-anticipated alien invasion of earth.
It’s likely that some dumb German kid in a concrete bunker at Normandy woke one morning in 1944 to see the allied fleet in the English Channel and had a similar existential levitation. He likely looked out at the largest invasion fleet in the history of the world and said: “What the fuck?” He would have said it in German, of course, which Mark Twain famously noted is much better — as a language — than it sounds.
When I got back in the house I was slightly disappointed to learn it wasn’t an invasion at all, merely Elon Musk’s Starlink. My dreams of an important role in the Maquis, post-invasion — maybe even a flirtation with Massoud-like celebrity — The Lion of the Cascades, as it were — were hard-crushed on the spot.
But really, why shouldn’t we have a bizarre train of allegedly benign satellites to help season the big dutch oven full of conspiracy theories — in the middle of a continuing pandemic and also the most bizarre presidential election cycle ever.
I don’t know the truth behind Elon Musk’s satellite show — they are supposedly meant to bring cell communications to every last corner of the world — which is a thing I’m not entirely convinced is desirable. Must every square foot on earth be rigged for connectivity? I’d prefer it if we could manage to keep at least some places phone-free but then again I still support ideas like clean water, sustainable communities, sirloin steaks medium rare, and wolves. I quit drinking and using tobacco — in retrospect this was a decision with downright shitty timing — but I often enjoyed three fingers of the Reverend James Beam with a fine cigar on our deck in the evening. Furthermore, I have frequently argued that no one has written a better anthem of Los Angeles than The Doors which I occasionally play loud in the barn. Morrison claimed the Doors were a blues band at heart and in this song, at least, he was right.
I play music in the barn most days because the barn cat loves Don Edwards and the mare, it turns out, is a huge fan of Billy Squier. I’ve been working in the barn a lot this Covid Spring and it has come with terrific revelations. Here’s two things I’ve learned: 1) if you don’t like me I don’t care, and 2) Guy Clark singing Stuff That Works to the rafters while I sit in the tack room oiling my saddles is a long way down that path to the golden cobblestones of heaven.
I’m learning to live with the notion that my own understandings are improperly balanced for the times. I was once arrested by MPs for fighting at a Chris LeDoux concert on Camp Pendleton and lately I’ve been enjoying “Making the Cut,” a show about clothes I’ll never wear made by fashion people who, pre-pandemic, I would have held in contempt. Except now I’ve learned that their hearts are full of love and driven by great passions to create interesting things. I can’t even believe I enjoy the show but there it is. Stranger things have happened. For instance, my saddle partner on the 3 Dot Ranch in NE California once roped a bison calf in front its mother which caused a day-long and nearly intractable problem for both of us.
Lessons like that are not soon unlearned.
Call me punchy but I recently dropped a Christensen Arms trigger into a Daniel Defense lower which is proof that anything under 3.5 lbs of pull is as sexy as a sheer dress on a southern belle.
Also, I don’t go in for the conspiracy theories which in the current situation are so numerous and wide-ranging it’s difficult to navigate the intellectual flotsam. The conspiracies just keep calving into the information sea like chunks of iceberg that are better avoided altogether. When you are sailing single-handed that means long solo mid-watches and one hand on the wheel at all times. That kind of life can be exhausting.
During this bizarre lockdown the internet, and social media in particular, have become a giant backyard barbecue with too many guests. Over by the fence you have the very serious political worriers, bruised and confused after being bitten by the cobra they were warned to avoid but decided to play with anyway, over by the pool one finds a collection of young mothers who have realized through forced home-schooling that their pampered kid is a little asshole, and in a shady corner by the tree a dour bunch sit nursing their cocktails in a kind of group clench, as if only they can absorb the true danger, power, and hidden meaning embedded in The ‘Rona. There is at least one drunk guy bumping into things and arguing with himself, and I’m posting up by the grill planning my escape route for when the cops finally crash this thing — and trying to steal some end cuts when no one is looking.
This epoch of confinement should probably serve as a reminder that we are far more fragile than we’ve come to believe. In Doc Holliday’s era dental work came with heavy doses of cocaine and laudanum and every third person was consumptive. Merely surviving childhood was a miracle. Women routinely died giving birth and heart attacks meant grandad died face down in his bowl of grits or keeled over during a foot stomping rendition of Bringing in the Sheaves. Forget surviving cancer or any severe physical trauma which in Doc’s time meant a dull hacksaw followed by grisly and bubbling infections and finally death.
That life was, seen correctly on the big timeline of earth events, a camera flash ago.
Most of our success in the health arena has come post WW2, particularly in trauma treatment where getting to a trauma center within the golden hour usually means survival. The quality of survival is certainly debatable but breathing unassisted is still scored as an earned run by the league. Because we’ve gotten so good at this we’ve quietly eased into a belief that all things are survivable and life goes on forever. We act shocked when they aren’t and it doesn’t. Religion and modern science share at least one important trait which is the relentless pursuit of immortality. And neither one of them is above telling bald faced lies to the true believers who are at war with each other and constantly recruiting.
The fact is we don’t see death up close anymore, not usually, as the dead are whisked away instead of sitting in the parlor turning ripe under a tablecloth for a few days, or until the death photo can finally be arranged. In the Covid 19 era that only happens in assisted living facilities, particularly in New Jersey, where you might get stacked in the garden shed for a few days until someone finally notices and the outrage machine starts shooting sparks into the atmosphere.
None of this would have surprised the train robber Rube Burrow, who died in a shootout in 1890 after escaping the jail in Lynwood, Alabama. Rube claimed he was starving and asked the guards for his bag of ginger snaps, but his bag had a gun in the bottom and things — well, let’s just say things got out of hand.
I once wrote a poem about Rube. It was from a series of poems based on death photos I called Three Women In Mourning Clothes. The Ode to Rube went like this:
Maybe because fate, like loot,
is divided equally among us,
it is difficult to dismiss an outlaw
who knew the need for rules
but gave his life to breaking them.
Take Ruben Houston Burrow,
lover of ginger snaps and fine revolvers
who made his living robbing trains –
who Southern Express detectives
swore they’d finally swing and who,
in this fading silver print,
lies propped in a pinewood coffin, exposed
for history to sentence. Maybe
we pause to consider Rube’s last pose
because we like to believe he was not afraid,
not afraid of that presence we feel
when walking alone in the dark.
Or maybe what causes us to pause
remains his final expression,
a face we recognize at once,
faintly embarrassed, frozen in a grin,
as if finally tuned to the wisdom of that other voice:
let this train go.
Bats, it turns out, carry every bad disease imaginable. They are also on the menu in restaurants across southern China. According to Matt Ridley, who is a member of the House of Lords and who last week wrote a fine article for the Wall Street Journal called “The Bats Behind the Pandemic,”
bats “have supplied most of the dangerous new diseases of the past two decades. The natural reservoir of rabies is in bats, especially in the Americas. Ebola, Marburg and other highly dangerous viruses come from bats, mainly in Africa. The Hendra and Nipah viruses are caught from fruit bats and have caused lethal but small outbreaks in south Asia and Australia. And most coronaviruses seem to originate in bats, including SARS and MERS, a frequently fatal illness that people in the Middle East began catching from camels in 2012, the camels having picked it up from bats…Bats are long-lived mammals, like us, and live in large crowds, like us – ideal for spreading respiratory infections in particular. One bat roost in Texas houses 20 million bats at certain times of year, a concentration of mammals paralleled only by people in cities.”
I once ran a Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot over one of those famous bat-bridges in Austin, Texas, where I wasn’t thinking about bats at all. I was primarily concerned with the jackass in front of me who had decided to wear a belt made of sleighbells. I couldn’t shake him and after five miles was ready to beat him mercilessly around the head and neck. I had long, satisfying visions of hyenas at work on his carcass. Turns out, my sleigh-bell tolerance is well under a half-mile which means I would be terrible company on a long Russian troika ride.
Years earlier I ran the Pier to Peak half marathon in Santa Barbara, California, where I could not pass a 75 year old man who just kept churning up the mountain like a machine. I was in peak condition, probably the best shape of my life, and could not gain on him. He ran on ridiculous spindly legs and had the weathered body of a lifelong sailor. He was shirtless and wearing a heart monitor which I thought was a good idea as he pushed a hard pace straight up the mountain.
Billed as “The World’s Toughest Half-Marathon,” Pier to Peak begins at the harbor and ends on La Cumbre Peak, with an elevation gain of almost 4000 feet. The old man in front of me looked like The Indian Runner from Sean Penn’s master film which was really, if we are being honest, written by Bruce Springsteen.
Anyway, old guy runner was only missing the body paint from the Indian Runner and I was able to study him for 13 or so miles. Penn’s other masterwork is a movie called The Pledge and for making those movies I could almost forgive his obstinate and bizarre political fantasies. The best part of Pier to Peak, besides finishing alive, was the “Oasis,” a water point on the side of the mountain, around mile 8, where runners are greeted by topless women saying encouraging things and providing succor to the road-blasted. The Oasis was as close as I’ll ever get in this life to the glories of ancient Germania, where Tacitus tells us:
It stands on record that armies already wavering and on the point of collapse have been rallied by the women, pleading heroically with their men, thrusting forward their bared bosoms, and making them realize the imminent prospect of enslavement — a fate which the Germans fear more desperately for their women than for themselves…they believe that there resides in women an element of holiness and a gift of prophecy; and so they do not scorn to ask their advice, or lightly disregard their replies. The women were more than just morale builders, though. They provided aid and comfort to their men after the battle was over, of course. And they would bring supplies and food to their male warriors in the middle of the fight.
Twice I’ve opened the barn doors in the morning and had a dead bat fall on my head. They sometimes roost in the tracks and when I roll the doors open they get squashed and fall. I’m also increasingly and intensely focused in directions other than politics. There is no return on any investment there but I can spend that time working a young horse or out in the garden which both pay handsome dividends. I’m hearing legitimate concerns about food shortages this fall and so success in the vegetable patch in particular is more important than ever. Tomorrow I will be installing a new hive of Saskatraz bees, which are a hybrid of Russian origin raised to survive in places like Saskatchewan. We need hearty bees like that in our neighborhood and it’s also true that bees as a species are in an existential fight for survival that puts our homo sapien struggles with coronavirus in perspective.
I’m writing all of this in the barn and just now the sky looks dark in the southwest. It’s been a glorious day otherwise and now I’m thinking maybe, just maybe, we’ll get some rain.
When I was a narcotics agent we did a lot of wiretap cases. Sometimes we had to tickle the wire to get suspects talking. We might issue a phony press release or give some bogus information to informants knowing they would spread it like wildfire. We might hit a house or stop some cars knowing our suspects would feel the heat inching closer. It usually worked and stirred things up and got them talking on their phones. I sometimes wonder who is tickling the big wire in our country and why but then I remember that we never really caught the smart ones — the ones who didn’t go jabbering on their phones. Who had discipline. Who thought their way through the minefields and focused on solutions rather than problems.
I’m starting to think it might rain. The air has that ozone smell in it. Ten minutes from now I may have another forecast altogether. No matter. The immediate future looks like Neatsfoot oil and an old rag, sitting back in my chair with the dogs at my feet, oiling some leather gear for a new season and listening to Moe Bandy sing his damn heart out about the bulls and the broncs and the frequent heartbreaks of a rodeo clown.