jazz photo

In the jazz club I am talking to the saxophonist. He is a friend of my friend the Irishman. We are talking about Richard Ford.

The jazz club is small and mostly purple. The saxophonist is dressed like a man who has been kicked to death. He is a genius. He played using a reverb pedal; the sound was like an animated architectural pitch: the overpass slides over the fresh highway; the onramp includes itself. The musicians do not care for me but the Irishman is well-liked and so they are polite.

There is a bar somewhere beyond my shoulder out of which I have been drinking gin and tonic. I become aware that we are being listened-to by the last point of the bar, furthest in the corner. The saxophonist is famous amongst jazz people and so I assume that he is the object of interest: but when the shape moves in, it is my arm it touches.

“I want to get to know you,” the shape says. It like being talked to by the bureau from Beauty and the Beast. “You seem interesting.”

He is wearing a leather hat. He is extraordinarily drunk. It comes on him that he should feign interest in my friends. “What’s your name?” he says to the saxophonist, who takes a step backward. The giant man goes around the circle and demands to know each man’s name. Then he takes my hand (my hand is a pebble down a well). The giant man looks like actor X. “I’d like to get to know you,” he says, moved.

Quickly he wants to know if the Irishman is married to me. “We’re mutual acquaintances,” says my enemy the Irishman.

The giant has a friend who wants to leave. The giant moves with his friend like an executive toy in zero g. Paused at the door, light is on the pronounced T of the friend’s cheeks and nose; he is smiling tight as a kroisos. He is unmistakably actor Y, which means that the huge drunk man is actor X.

Actor X tidals back to us. “Are you English?” he realizes at me, but I am not. “Are you English?” he asks the Irishman, who says “Not quite.”

After this I am a hit on the LA jazz scene. All the unkempt men with their big black cases want to hear my story. The jazz club is in Japantown, in a storied courtyard, up the little layers in an elevator. The shops are shut. Pink toys, slim notebooks and whitening masks in the windows, clean and deep in plastic as a drugstore.

Great Lakes

gorton'sWendy and Wendy’s cousin decided to poison Wendy’s mother. It was nearly Easter and the windows were shut against the cold but the curtains were open. The sky was long and pale blue.

The mouth of the fish stick box was warped from the freezer. The fish sticks clattered onto the baking pan and threw off fuzzy freezer ice.

Wendy should peek at her mother. Her mother had renovated the house since Wendy had visited: there were new, jumbled doorways where there had been walls, and the doorways were like the page sides of yellow old paperbacks. Wendy’s mother was folding in the laundry room.

Wendy and her cousin chose Dawn, with the duck on it, and wrote their names in blue cursive over the fish sticks on the baking pan. It looked too blue. They took each fish stick one by one into their hands and rubbed the soap into the fish sticks with their thumbs. Cold and nubbled surfaces. They wiped the soap from the pan with a wet paper towel. At first the soap foamed and then it wiped clean.

They had forgotten to turn the oven on. It took them a while to interpret its dials. They waited on either side of the fish sticks. The light in the air was tender and sweet.

Wendy felt agitated, with was an unfamiliar feeling. Most often she felt either flattered or abashed. Wendy and her cousin poured all the fish sticks off of the baking pan and into the garbage disposal, then they put their hands between the black flaps of the disposal mouth and pulled the fish sticks out. They loaded the fish sticks and the mishapen fish stick box into a plastic bag from Jewel and Wendy’s cousin took it to the garbage can at the end of the driveway. The garbage can’s lid bonked distantly.

Wendy’s friend Patsy called and asked to come over. Patsy said she wanted to show Wendy her CDs, but really she wanted to take a look at Wendy’s ankle monitor. Wendy’s cousin went into the fronchroom and turned on the tv.

Wendy sat at the kitchen table with the CD player between her feet. Patsy laid her CD binder on the table but didn’t sit down. Wendy lifted the leg of her jeans and turned her foot right and left. The monitor was black as a computer. Patsy sat down and turned the pages of her CD binder. The pages smacked as they fell. Every CD was Cher. In the fronchroom, Wendy’s cousin was watching Dr. Phil.


june 12 2007 paris corner

When I was seventeen I went to Paris with my French class. In Paris in the hotel courtyard our tour guide spoke to us and I became conscious and unconscious like Venetian blinds opening and closing rapidly because I was jet lagged. My head fell onto my chest and lifted and fell. The tour guide scolded me.

At night in the hotel we couldn’t sleep. It was very hot. We pulled the bedclothes onto the fat plaster balcony and lay there. There was my friend Maja, who had long legs, and an eighteen-year-old called Erin whose grandmother had given her this trip as a birthday gift. We were all intensely excited.

Across the way there were those faceted Parisian buildings. They were not very far from our balcony. Their windows were open. In one lighted window there were shapes the color of pit fruit moving. At length I became aware that I was watching a man and a woman having sex. We looked at them and discussed them, although it seemed incredible. This was the first time I had ever seen sex.

We couldn’t sleep on the balcony because its surface was too hard. We pushed the beds together and slept on one great form. I don’t know why we did that—it must have been hot. Sometime in the night Maja, who slept in the center, woke me and the other girl by yelling. The beds had drifted from one another under her very scant weight and she was falling between them, hanging in the white sheets like a paratrooper in a tree. It was very confusing in the dark. The next morning we teased her for it. That wasn’t nice.

The Language of Skulls

medieval memento mri

Over time we have lost some of the sounds which skulls once stood for. These sounds are completely out of our conversation, which may surprise. We are used to thinking of ourselves as an entirely-present group of creatures, in permanent possession of any item which could have at any time be called a human’s possession—this is of course insane. We are neither a single aging body nor inheritors. It is possible to lose things.

Once the image of the skull meant:

Your own face

– You will be as I am now (repent!)

– You will be as I am now (celebrate!)

– You will be as I am now (this is the case)

– This is your true self ultimately

– This is your true self immediately

The nature of the phenomenal place or item where the image of the skull is located

– This place will cause your death

– This is a place to inter the dead / this is a place for the dead

– This place belongs to death / to the dead

– This thing is like death

– This thing causes death

– This is a harmful thing

– This is an evil thing

The nature of the one where the skull is located (this one is often an artwork of a transcendentally absent one, like a god)

– This entity has the actual attendants of death (time, change, temporality)

– This entity has the sentimental attendants of death (fear, wildness, cruelty, irresistibility)

– This entity has mastery over death

– This entity is Death

A statement made by the one who bears the skull

– I will cause your death

– I wish your death

– I am able to cause your death

– I have the actual attendants of death (time, change, temporality)

– I have the sentimental attendants of death (fear, wildness, cruelty, irresistibility)

The nature of the world

– Death exists

– At once life and death are the case

– Life is temporary

– Reality is hidden beneath illusion

Another person

– One [who was beloved] has died

– Remember this one who died

– This one here is dead

In our simple and fearful age, we use only eight skull sounds. All these meanings have to do with our fears for ourselves and our appetites for and against others.

Items and people:

– This will cause you to die (it wills your death)

– This will cause you to die (it has no will but is deadly)

– This thing can do you harm

I and thou:

– I am stronger than you

– I can cause your death

– I will your death


– I feel as if I am like death (I am ill, I am void)

– I have the sentimental attendants of death (fear, wildness, cruelty, irresistibility)

Our mouths remain the same. Our teeth and our tongues are as basically capable of forming each sound which has been lost as were our ancestors who used to describe the human skull in greater dimension than “others want what I’ve got. The strong eat the weak and the weak infect the careless and the merciful”. It is possible to use the language of skulls more fully than we do—but it is not done. Our only language is of overwhelming and submitting. Everything is described in the terms of overwhelm and submission—and everything which has submitted against its will plots to overwhelm.

Our ghost stories are about fear of the injured, fear of the done-wrong-by; “it will somehow make me to become like it”. The ghoul looks sick and sad. It is often a long-haired woman or a child who looks like a woman. It may actively long for the thing which you possess (life), and end the thing it longs for because it longs for it—or it may long for life by its very meaning; as the body of the beautiful woman is full of longing whether or not it actually longs, the ghoul wants your life by its nature. The woman is desired—we agree socially that she must be full of desire. I have life, which is the only thing worth having, and therefore the ghoul must want my life.

Some try to make friends with death. Our language system gives them two options: they can agree that they deserve to be mastered by death (they are unworthy of life, or they already have the qualities of the dead body, or, most ridiculous of all, that the qualities of the dead body are good or desireable) or they can submit to the future power of death in hopes of receiving its favors during life.

What is the means of discovering our lost sounds? Maybe to discard this idea of overwhelm-submission. Certainly the idea should be discarded, as it does not accurately describe reality. I think a more useful strategy, however, would be to fatten our definition of longing. To strengthen our longings, to allow them to grow and develop, would stretch us out of the appetites we have become and into human beings.


They were starving in a luxury hotel in Madrid. They were starving to death. Below the window there was a brilliant purple geometry, a cafeteria lighted with a little bit of neon around the edges, where the young business people ate at some hour. She looked down on it, holding the several heavy curtains aside. The light was gray and water went up to the window like distant headlights. She returned to bed.

The friend left. The young business people carefully went home and then came out again. Music from cars. She hadn’t seen rain of this type for eight years; in Los Angeles it either rained or completely didn’t. In the day, probably early, she had walked among the smooth frigid pavements. A kiosk quietly held up the poster for a Bond movie. She bought thick tights at a Wolford shop and asked if she could put them on right away. The shopwoman didn’t understand what she was asking and when she tried to indicate the act of pulling on tights the shopwoman curved behind the counter and lifted a shopping bag so she went to the dressing enclave and put the tights on and left. She carried the paper shell inside which the tights had been curled until she passed a public trash can.

At night she walked out of the hotel and happened on a gourmet grocery, small and tall. Its doorway was painted red. In that respect it looked like a wooden puppet. She bought a can of capers and a baguette and slices of ham wrapped in wax and a bag of oranges and a jar of olives and two small bottles of wine. She went into the store again and said “Argento, argent,” and dug with her hand at the jar of olives until the grocer brought out a box of picnic forks. She paid for it and said Thank you and the grocer showed that the greatest thank you would be for her to leave.

At the hotel the friend was watching Blackadder on the television. Green heavy curtains. They realized they had nothing to open the wine with so they called the desk. They incised the bread with their thumbs and pressed the ham into it—the ham shrank and frilled like fabric sinking in water. When the lobbyboy arrived with a corkscrew they showed him the can of capers and he said he would come back. In the morning they watched Al Jazeera and applied almond oil to their midlengths and ends. They got the almond oil free from work. They pumped it onto their palms and met their hands over their hair at its middle and drew their hands down and repeated the process.

Devil Winds

standing on roof

Maybe you remember Elliot Rodger. He committed a mass shooting in Santa Barbara in twenty fourteen. Before heading out the door that evening, he emailed his parents a 141-page statement about his life, all of whose pages I have read more than once. I read it when the newspeople put it online (which they did very promptly)—Rodger and I had lived in the same neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley and must have visited the same shops and walked the same routes. On some day before the spring of 2014, we must have sat in the same Barnes and Noble at the same time. I lived in San Francisco in the spring of 2014 and I was very cold and tired, and I wanted to go home to the south.

I read Rodger’s statement again this November when a man committed a mass shooting near here. These days I live in the Valley. Rodger refers to places I see each week and a land I am surrounded by. Let me tell you about this land, in November, in twenty eighteen.

November has the Santa Ana winds. They are hot and dry. You’ve read about them. This year they come in the night. I am awake in Woodland Hills when they arrive. Woodland Hills and Calabasas are side-by-side in the Valley below the Santa Monica mountains. In the night the mountains are silent and black and heaving with sage and lemon sage and other wild herbs. Distant homes stand in light on the far hills like the Northern Corona (clear as a bracelet from Calabasas where you and I stand now).

Look at the soft immense curtain of the Santa Monicas. Inside it, there is a canyon called Topanga which leads to the Pacific Coast Highway and the water. At night Topanga is a cold alley. The library is black under its folkloric eaves. The cantilvered homes are black and their rubbish, their discarded kayaks, dented paper lanterns, knotted strings of Tibetan flags, red and blue and yellow but black in the dark, shape themseves around the deep feet of the houses’ stilts. Rubbish growing in shapes with the hairlike roots of the white alder and the breathing sagebrush.

The Santa Ana winds are pushing through all of this like surf.

The Top o’ Topanga Overlook is a slant into the lids of green mountain trees and, beyond, the bright system of lights of the Valley. People go here after dark to have sex or to see the stars. Raccoons climb straight up the torsos of the live oaks to emerge suddenly from the manzanita blossoms and terrify.

Some years ago I jogged each night in Calabasas, up and down the hills. The sprinklers screamed on and lit my legs. Houses expelled their dryers’ steam. On the tops of hills the whole sky doubled and touched me, closed over me like a sheet when I was a child and my parents would make the bed over me. Coyotes chanted.

Dry at night in Calabasas. The smell of rocks in the desert. The homes’ skylights glow from inside. The pine’s hot trunk at the foot of the hill—pine above me like a kind silent god, immediate father of sheep and weird knowledge. A father who births sheep and letters.

In the day in November in the Valley the Anas grab the orange trees in the gardens beside the pools. The scent of the orange trees is in your head, as far back as your sinuses. Come down my old neighborhood to the grocery and the houses on Mulholland—the foothills haired like boars or yellow horses. This is the border between Calabasas, where there is money, and Woodland Hills, where there is less. Look up there. The gigantic tarps hanging from the houses on the cliffs. Construction was stopped in 2008. Ozymandian tarps, rolling blue in the airs.

The front yards of the ranch houses of Woodland Hills—the gradiant birds-of-paradise flowers and the two billion hummingbirds and the cereus cacti standing on the high shoulder between roads. In November some bougainvillea remain on the branch and some are dry on the ground, still very pink. The dry bougainvillea jump in the Anas, and the white petals from the blooming trees too and the purple twists from the jacarandas and the toasted pink roses and the green leaves the gardeners cut.

The sidewalks are not so accessible in Southern California. The city planners did not expect you or I or Elliot Rodger to travel on foot. Some hills break off in rocks and dust, and below the sheer hillsides and jutting prickly pear there are white blocks of stone the size of legs in the center of the path, there as if they’ve never been elsewhere. Go toward Ventura, the main street of the Valley. The palm trees glitter like car-dealer bunting in the winds.

The land is calico with autumn. The gingko is green and yellow. CVS, Coffee Bean, sex shop, brow threading. Lizards teleport onto the sidewalk as you walk. Huge banks of lavender. Lantana and butterfly weed. Wind goes up the cypresses. Diamond-cut grit all the way from the Mojave sinks into the corner of your eye.

The flashing egg-shaped leaves of the olive trees. The children deep down in the field at Taft, below the road. The girl-eye of the hawk. The meat-red skins of the palms drop into traffic. The blue-gum eucalyptuses are peeling, too; their bark is sliding down amid the fennel on the angled verge beside surface streets like men on ice. 

Shadows swell around the stones of the San Gabriel hills and you are surprised that the evening has come so early. In the heat you had forgotten it is November.

I read Rodger’s henlike account of his life this November and then the wildfires start. Taft fills up with fire refugees. The college in Woodland Hills shelters the horses from Topanga. Calabasas evacuates. I wipe the green matter from the windowsills and it smears black. At Starbucks a woman moves the dust mask from her mouth and tells us that road signs on the 101 are twisted and the power lines are down.

Burned trees look strange in the months post-fire. They have the shape of trees without leaves, but they are absolutely black. You can drive through them in the hundreds before you recognize what it is you are driving amongst. They look like winter trees, and it is January; even in Southern California, some trees are bare before springtime. It is only that they are so black. There is new chapparal on the ground around them, a roll of chapparal like the wave which passes over a mammal’s fur in a breeze or stretch. It rains generously this January, and the garbage cans are knocked down the flooding streets, and the winter jasmine blossoms.