October 2012


A couple weeks ago I had a friendly and helpful conversation about how to get my trailer’s propane tanks filled at G & K Propane in Yucca Valley. G & K is “the place to go for propane around here” according to my dad, who knows about these things, and I’d say he’s right, based on my experience there. They were clearly looking to help, not just make a buck off me, and I really appreciated it.

As I was about to leave, I noticed a bumper sticker prominently displayed in their lobby, the clever if mystifying “I’LL KEEP MY GUNS, FREEDOM & MONEY.. YOU CAN KEEP THE ‘CHANGE'” with Obama’s logo in a red “no” circle. I have a funny mix of irritation and admiration at businesses who put their mouth where their money is like that. Usually it’s a business advertising in some way that they really only want Christians to come into their store, and I think, “Wow, it’s actually more important for these people to not have to be around heathens than to make money. That’s taking a stand.”

Underneath this bumper sticker was scotch-taped a handwritten note reading, “YA FILTHY ANIMAL!” I was upset enough by this that I’m still thinking about it. The bumper sticker is a way to voice one side of a political debate. “Filthy animal” is not. “Filthy animal” is an expression of total contempt, disgust, and hatred. You can kill a filthy animal with impunity, maybe even with satisfaction or pride. I remembered the manager of a restaurant I worked at, stomping a rat to death in the kitchen.

It reminded me of how afraid I was that Obama would be killed–lynched, really–for the crime of having come into so much power in America. How many people in this country would kill the president if they had the chance? Is the person who wrote that one of them? I seriously doubt it, but “YA FILTHY ANIMAL” is a way of aligning with that group.

All this was going through my mind as I decided what to do. I tend to be outspoken when confronted with racism, once even debating a self-avowed racist barber as he cut my hair. I think of it as one of the more useful things I do. In the case of the barber, for example, I got to hear and be sympathetic about this man’s struggle growing up around LA gangs, how scared and angry he was all the time, how members of his family had been hurt. He got to hear and eventually allow some credibility to my ideas about how it was poverty and oppression rather than skin color that made the people he interacted with as a kid so dangerous.

I imagine there is a similar encounter to be had here, but this case, I just left. I was running late and that was enough of an excuse to get out.

Still, I have a decision to make. When I need to refill my propane tanks, do I go back? Do I say, “I’d like to refill my tanks, but first I need to talk to the person who wrote that note on your wall”? Or do I go somewhere else, possibly driving way out of my way, to find propane people who put less offensive things up in their lobby?

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I listened to some conservative talk radio this evening while I fixed some plumbing in my trailer. I hadn’t checked in with these guys in a while. The tone was quite anxious, reminding me that everyone is anxious about this election. What drew my attention the most, though, was the conversation between the host and a high-level electoral strategist about presidential politics in Ohio. The host asked the strategist to give him some hope about Ohio. The answer was no, sorry, but the race is just really close. If it rains on election day, though, he said, it will keep people from voting and we’ll probably win.

It seemed a very uncomfortable thing for a political party to hope for. The fewer people that vote, the better our chances. When I looked into electoral demographics, though, it seemed true: The younger, the more female, and the less white the voter, the more likely they are to vote for Democratic candidates. And the less likely they are to vote. It looked like if everyone voted we would probably never have another Republican president. The more democracy, the more Democrats.

So it’s easy to see why Democrats get upset when Republicans pass laws that make it more difficult to vote. And lately they are talking up early voting, which could help with turnout. But I’ve never heard Democrats talking as plainly about it as these two Republicans did tonight. Why is that? Trying to be polite?

Several years ago, I realized what a bummer it is that I will never be able to hear what Jimi Hendrix sounded like with fresh ears. I remember hearing him for the first time, and it was good, but by that time, Hendrix was a practically a genre and certainly a cliche. I can only imagine the joy of hearing him for the first time in the late 60s, before anyone was bored of Hendrix-pastiche, when was hearing him in the context of his actual time: Johnson in office and civil rights moving, The Beatles best records just out, and Blonde on Blonde, and Pet Sounds. It must have been shocking and amazing and wonderful to hear something so powerful and so different and so right.

And that’s just Hendrix. What about Duke Ellington, or Louie Armstrong, or Woody Guthrie, or the Stanley Brothers, or Sinatra, or Elvis?

I have this fantasy of creating something like those experiences for myself: A nutty music buff, or team of them, puts together a big playlist–maybe 200 songs–for each half-decade of the 20th century. I’d have the soundtracks of 20 impossibly hip Americans from different eras. I’d listen to them exclusively, immerse myself in them, one at a time for a few weeks at a time, in chronological order, for a year.

I think I’d stand a chance of really hearing the newness of Hendrix, and all the rest of them, in that context. I would love to try. Any nutty music buffs out there want to take on the project? I will put my ears in your hands.

The transition back to Joshua Tree from a wetter climate can be rough. For me, the worst was returning in December 2000 after a year on Maui. It was so cold and dry it felt like I was living on the moon. It took a couple weeks to acclimate.

I just spent 10 weeks traveling and camping for Not Back to School Camp, almost all in wet areas. The last few weeks were in Vermont, with humidity hovering around 99%. The damp started to get to me. And the cold, and the rain. It was really nice in a lot of ways–I love the staff and campers at NBTSC like crazy, and the fall foliage was spectacular when the sun would occasionally break through the clouds–but I was definitely looking forward to my dry, sunny, warm home.

Now that I’m here, I remember that it can take a while before dry, sunny, and warm seems as pleasant as it sounds. My skin feels dry. My lips and mucous membranes feel dry. It’s hard to keep hydrated. The sunlight seems harsh and temperatures I normally call warm, like 85F, feel unpleasantly hot. I’m no longer used to sweating. I notice the dust more, too.

I know I’ll feel better in a few days, and mostly it is just a matter of waiting it out. There are some things that can help, though:

1) Drive or take overland transport of some sort. (Reanna suggests walking to really slow things down.) Flying makes the transition more abrupt and uncomfortable.

2) Use a humidifier for a while, especially at night.

3) Drink more water than is comfortable. Remember that you are exhaling water vapor each time you breathe.

4) Cover up in the sun. Lily-white skin burns quickly

5) Take it easy for a while. Rest it out.

I met Chris Thile when he was a boy. Seven, maybe. Our parents were friends, through La Leche League, I think, and maybe southern California homeschooling events, and through both having family bands. He was already amazing at mandolin and asked to try my electric guitar. He said he’d never played one before, which was difficult to believe as I watched his little-boy fingers fly on the fretboard. He was clearly and instantly miles beyond me on my own instrument.

I don’t write off his success to talent, though. I believe he is an outlier in many respects. He has worked like crazy, practicing, performing, touring, composing. He’s also one of the nicest and most charismatic people I’ve met. Most of the many times I’ve seen him perform over the years, he’s noticed and said hi to me from the stage or after the set, treating me like an old friend even though we really barely knew each other. So charming!

Here’s a video about Chris being named a 2012 MacArthur Fellow:

And here he is at about the age I met him, on acoustic guitar: