desert living

I’m off caffeine right now and noticing an interesting and subtle improvement in my life that has highlighted a problem with caffeine. A few days ago, at work, I felt this low-energy sensation that caused me to think, “I need some caffeine.” That low-energy sensation was not low caffeine levels, though I had come to think of it that way. It was, of course, tiredness. Without recourse to caffeine I realized that I was just tired, there was nothing to do but take a rest or keep working tired. In that moment I was free of something that had caught me during the last year. I was a human being, tired, and this was what it felt like to be me right now. I could relax into that fact.

With caffeine in your life, there comes an element of constantly chasing the flame of perfect alertness, probably in the service of productivity, without having to use self-care or build distress tolerance.

Without caffeine its much easier to notice how much sleep is really enough, and that you, like all primates, get tired in the afternoon and should probably have a siesta–as is traditional among primates who have not inherited nothern-European culture. (No, it has nothing to do with lunch. How many times have you said, “Wow, breakfast really knocked me out”?) There is also the more esoteric but real opportunity for mindfulness and building equanimity towards the discomforts of life.

This kind of problem is a theme. I also happen to be off sugar right now, for example, and have noticed that my cravings for sugar happen when I am stressed. This was much harder to notice when I could just eat something sugary without thinking about it. I don’t think that sugar counteracts the stress, like caffeine does the tiredness, but I do think I’m unconsciously (and ineffectively) trying to manage stress when I eat sugar most of the time. The result is often bellyache. Off sugar, the question becomes, “Am I hungry?” or “Am I thirsty?” or just, “Am I restless and need a break or a few deep breaths?”

A third example is air conditioning. I live in the desert, and it’s hot during the day. I know from decades of experience that I can adapt to the heat by wearing appropriate clothes, using water, choosing activities based on the time of day, and just plain physiological adaptation. Now I work in air-conditioned offices 9-5, five days a week. For me that means wearing long-sleeve shirts over undershirts to stay warm enough, and never adapting to summer. So whenever I step outside it feels like a furnace and I’m dressed for a cool spring day. I have to use enough AC in my car that I don’t show up to clients’ houses drenched in sweat. It’s like pretending I don’t live in a desert.

Don’t get me wrong–caffeine, sugar, and AC are wonderful in their own ways and I don’t foresee giving any of them up permanently. I just recognize the way they get me trapped chasing a small, constantly moving space of theoretical comfort all day, often to my detriment.

I hate wind. It’s a natural and deep hate that comes with growing up in the desert. So many swim practices on sunny days rendered freezing, so many treasured but aerodynamic objects disappeared to the next county, so many teenage hairstyles ruined. Wind is the Voldemort of Joshua Tree, the weather-that-shall-not-be-named: “Hey, have you noticed we haven’t had much doubleyou eye en-dee lately? Gotta love it!”

So since I’ve moved back to the desert, I’ve been thinking about what I could do to change my relationship with wind. I’d so much rather be happy than depressed when it blows, but it’s been a tough one. There’s just not much to like. I could get into kites, I guess, but I don’t feel excited about that idea. Desert kiteboarding (boarding starts at 1:00) looks like it could be fun but I’d need to get into much better shape. I’ll have to wait for my sprained wrist to heal, at least.

The obvious answer is energy-generating windmills, and I got excited about them for a while, but really we don’t need more electricity here. Thanks to a great investment by my dad, we have solar panels that generate about as much electricity as we can use.

The last idea I got excited about was a kind of wind-based CO2 scrubber. I imagined a funnel that directed air over a scrubber of some kind that was powered by an attached windmill. The scrubber would poop carbon dust (or bricks, even better) that I could bury somewhere on my property. Or whatever the hippest thing to do with carbon dust is–I never got that far. Genius, I thought. I could be happy about wind that was doing some small part to undo my pollution.

I never got that far because there are only prototypes of machines kind of like it at this point, and it is apparently not clear how well they will work. As I understand it, scrubbing CO2 out of air is difficult to do because there is so little CO2 in air. It’s much easier to do where the pollution is thick, like industrial smoke stacks. The takeaway from my several hours of looking into it was that it was probably more ethical to use whatever extra money I could scrape together to buy and install more solar panels to connect to the grid.  Not as satisfying as sucking my own pollution out of the air, but donating clean energy to power other people’s lives could mean less pollution produced in the first place.

Thinking about carbon sequestration shifted my thinking a bit in an unexpected direction. The millions and millions of stick frame houses in the US are made of sequestered carbon, for example. And landfills: All the junk mail and cardboard boxes in landfills are made of sequestered carbon.  All the plastic crap in landfills is made of sequestered carbon. I still think that forest conservation, sustainable forest management, and reforestation are some of the very most important things we can do, but I no longer cringe as much when I see forest products heading for landfills, stick frame houses in deserts, or wood siding when it should have been plaster. Even all that tragic plastic crap–at least we’re not burning it.


I made a composter last year that has been working pretty well:

My model for composting comes from my aunt & uncle, who have three fenced-in areas for compost. They use one for a year and then let it sit for two years. It is the epitome of low-maintenance composting: throw in your kitchen scraps and come back in a couple years.

In the desert, you can’t just have a fence. The critters will eat what they can and leave with your compost in their bellies. The rest will eventually either mummify or turn to dust and blow away. In the desert, you need a box with a lid and you need to keep it moist. The plan was to have a box that held a year’s worth of kitchen scraps that we would keep moist by dumping in the rinse water when we needed to rinse out the bucket.

And it worked. The size, 2′ x 2′ x almost 3′, was perfect. Over a year we put in a couple hundred gallons of kitchen scraps, half of a straw bale, a bunch of silage from the garden, and only enough water to keep our compost bucket from stinking, and it’s standing at 3/4 full and dropping. No turning or fussing.

But we needed a new box and I’ve just finished it, with help from my nephew Ollie:

It’s a lot bigger–4’x4’x3′–for a couple reasons. We want it to last longer and we’re expecting to have more to put in it this year. Also, I think the 2’x2’x3′ box is too small to really get cooking. My brother Damian got intensely into compost this year and inspired us to buy a compost thermometer and we found that our compost peaked at 117 degrees and usually hovered around 100, no matter what we did about the carbon/nitrogen ratio. 100 is fine for a low-maintenance composter, but if we can get it really hot just by having a bigger box, why not?

I made one other design change that I’ve never heard anyone else doing. I always wonder about the bottom corners of a rectangular composter. It seems like they will have less composting mass down there and won’t be able to heat up as much. So I dug a hole inside it to make the eventual pile more spherical:

As usual, I have no control group for this experiment, so I’ll never know if it’s helpful.

My second new composter is a little more edgy, so if you’re squeamish about urine, read no further.

In the desert, we are lucky to have two places to pee–into a septic system or onto the ground. Septics are OK, and it’s great to be able to pee inside when it’s cold outside, but there are problems. If you maintain them properly, they ferment your sewage, but it’s basically an underground landfill. The city west of Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley, for example, has irrevocably poisoned one of their aquifers by letting it touch their underground “septic plume.”

Peeing outside is one of the great pleasures of living in a rural area. The problem is, the pee is still a waste product. As a kid, I figured I was watering the thirsty desert plants that I peed near, often choosing which bush by who looked the most parched. I have since proven to my satisfaction that peeing on desert bushes does not help them. I’ve peed on various bushes for various periods of time and watched how they responded and they don’t. No extra growth, no increase in blooming. If anything, the pee stunts their growth.

Then I came across the idea that urine is great fertilizer, but is too strong to go directly on plants. Usually  these folks say to water it down 7:1 or so, and your plants will shoot up. I have also disproven this idea to my satisfaction.

The healthy greens on the right were watered with pure hose water. The dead greens on the left were watered for less than a week with pee watered down 20:1. Now if you are in the permaculture grapevine, you may be thinking, “Oh, that’s because you didn’t age or ferment the pee first.” OK, maybe, but don’t tell me about it. Show me a photograph of some aged-pee-watered plants next to some regular-watered plants that are not doing as well.

Now there is a rumor going around that you can make compost by peeing on straw. (Root Simple, for example.) The idea is, nitrogen from the pee plus carbon from the straw plus time equals compost. I happen to think that compost is more complicated than that, and that the benefit of compost has more to do with having the right bacterial ecology in your garden soil than just having decomposed organic matter. But the prospect of doing something useful with pee that involves peeing outside was very appealing. So I buried half a straw bale near my trailer:

Sorry about the photo–I may have taken it by headlamp after digging past dusk. Point is, I dug a hole about 2.5′ deep so my just over half a straw bale would fit in on end. I didn’t get a photo of the new finished product. Imagine the end of a straw bale–compact straw–flush with the ground.

It’s temperature has been between 80 and 100 F, and the level of the straw has dropped a few inches in the last two months. So maybe it’s making compost. If so, I get to pee outside and feel good about making compost, and maybe I’ll plant a tree near there. If not, I’m creating a slightly stinky hole in the ground that I can fill in with sand pretty easily. (And I should note here that it is much less stinky than if I’d just peed on the ground in the same spot for a couple months, which I know because I’ve done it.) Here’s what it looks like now:

This is a long post, so first the short version. In the last year: I started working full time and am adjusting to that. I’m glad to be working towards my MFT licensure, but uncomfortable about how it pushes my relationships and other projects onto the back burner. My marriage gets better and better, despite this. The company I work for goes out of business so I get part of the summer off, and I get the exact same job (family therapist for US Marines & their families) with a new company.

And for the year ahead: I plan to continue this work, taking good care of myself, dance with Reanna every night, as promised to my friend, Tilke, in her “How to be a Real Artist” workshop, get in best shape in 5 years, and learn how to treat myself and Reanna really really well while working full time.

October: I started my year out at Farm & Wilderness, VT, staffing and teaching a really fun psychology project at Not Back to School Camp. As is traditional, I got really sick, but this time it was from a waitress in Rutland, not someone at NBTSC. I recuperated while visiting Ethan & Susannah, also in Vermont. Back in Joshua Tree, I started working out again (SERIOUS style), planted my first winter garden, fixed some electrical and plumbing problems in my trailer, and started setting up a private practice. In the process of hiring a supervisor, I found out that in California, unlike in Oregon, I cannot do my internship in a private practice. So I started looking for work in a local clinic.

Looking out over Woodward Reservoir from my cabin at Farm & Wilderness

Ethan, cataloging NBTSC lost & found in his library

The famous Quodlibetarian tub


Reanna at Playa Del Rey

Ollie, a year ago

Ollie & Pap

Gabe, Damian & Maya on the Hwy 62 Art Tour

Trailer at sunset, looking south

November: I move into a new computer, archive my years of audio journal entries, and learn Sketchup while applying for and getting a job at Morongo Basin Mental Health: providing free, confidential therapy for US Marines, veterans, and their families. In what would become a series of small-town coincidences, a high school friend I hadn’t seen in decades worked there, saw my name on the interview list and sat in on my interview, interjecting stuff like, “Oh, yeah, good answer!” Nice way to interview. The manager of the military program assured me that the our contract was solid for at least two years. That’s about how long I need to get my hours for licensure, so the job sounded good–no chance of having to ditch my clients like I had to in grad school! I spent the rest of the month getting in as much time with Reanna and my family before starting full time work.

Rainbow over the Bartlet Mts

Maya & Ollie in hammock

Ollie helps Nana Honey cook

Me & Reanna

December:  My 93 year old Grandpa Bob gets really sick, and I get really sick taking care of him. I was pretty sure he was going to die. He had pneumonia and had to go on antibiotics for the first time in his life. It took me weeks to fully recover. He eventually recovered, too, but I’m not sure he’ll ever fully recover. He’s been on antibiotics off and on ever since and is progressively less mobile. It’s got me thinking a lot about dying–how I can support the people I love when they start having a hard time taking care of themselves, and how I want to die when my time comes.

I start at MBMH, reading 40 hours a week of protocols. I have Christmas with family in Joshua Tree. My brother Damian starts a weekly evening with family, listening to an integral Christianity lecture and meditation that turns out to be a presentation of integral theory to Christians, rather than Christianity to integral thinkers, but valuable nonetheless.

Reanna & Christina, Xmas

Reanna & Maya, Xmas

Ely, Christina, Pap, Ben, Rebeca, Xmas

Gabe, Ely, Ollie, Christina, Xmas

Reanna, ukulele, heater

Ollie, bundled up

January: I get my first paid vacation ever–one week off, fully paid by MBMH. Weird, pretty nice. I write my first attempt at a comprehensive political statement. Reanna and I start a three-month experiment with a strict “paleo” diet, which mostly means we cut out sugar and grains from our diet. The theory is that human adaptation to grains and refined anything is shallow at best. I also start cooking Mexican food (the paleo-friendly recipes) from Rick Bayless’ Authentic Mexican. I love it. And Reanna loves eating it. I start learning to play Reanna’s ukulele. I play and sing “Amazing Grace” most nights for a month. Fun!

I’m working full time, which I’ve never done. It’s not my favorite schedule. I had to let go of most of my projects. I started building a solar batch water heater in the fall, for example, that is still not finished. The schedule has simplified my life quite a bit. Work all day, spend the evening with Reanna. I gained more respect for my friends who’ve been working full time for decades and still manage to write some music or read books. I’m ramping into a caseload, though, and am seeing seven clients a week by the end of the month.

My endurance training is going great by this point. Mid month I got my heart rate up to 179 bpm without hurting myself. Very exciting.

Smiley and Gallant visit

Reanna in our clean, cold kitchen

Dinner’s almost ready. (Photo by Reanna.)

Grandpa Bob turns 94

Me in therapist costume, with Ollie. (Photo by Reanna.)

February: Full time work continues. I get trained in the Trauma Resiliency Model, which I find very cool and useful. I re-up the trademark on Abandon Ship. I feel sad that I can’t write music with my brothers right now, but have plenty of optimistic plans to do so… Reanna starts designing our future house, another exciting project that I have to watch from the sidelines. I love watching her get super deep into a topic like this, though. She is now the resident expert in passive-solar-optimized-very-small-house design. We start car shopping, too. We need to be independently mobile in Joshua Tree.

Trench. Hose feeding trailer finally to be buried.

Reanna & treehouse near the Mexican border

Ollie, Damian

March: I’m up to 16 clients at MBMH and I’m fighting for mastery of the intense paperwork load. The clinical work is going great. My supervisor is good, I am fully engaged by my clients, and I get to see a good variety of folks–kids, adults, families, couples. The paperwork is fairly unpleasant, though. Mental health providers that get government funding spend a huge amount of time and energy creating and maintaining a paper trail for their work. These clinics get paid based on the work they claim to have done and then various agencies can audit their files and take that money back if a box wasn’t checked or a T wasn’t crossed. I spend my first very late day at work in March, trying to catch up on paperwork. Reanna is not happy.

Highlights: A great lecture by Bruce Perry, planting my first spring/summer garden, endurance training going great (I work out during my lunches at MBMH), meeting the Transition Joshua Tree folks. And Reanna. Reanna is wonderful.

Lowlights: My truck fails smog and I begin what becomes an expensive debacle trying to get it to pass.  I start having sync problems with my Mac that I am still dealing with as I write. I start working on our taxes on weekends. Reanna is Canadian and that makes our taxes super complicated and somehow even though we hired a professional we ended up owing big fines.

Abandon Ship cover art, for the TM folks. Art by Tilke.

Damian & Ollie in old billy goat pen, future garden

Me, just having sunk the garden beds. (Photo by Reanna)

Reanna planting pepper starts


Ollie & Reanna take the trash out

Ollie & Reanna rest in the hammock

April: I find out that Morongo Basin Mental Health has decided to go out of business after more than 40 years, at the end of June. That’s quite a shock and less for me than for the many decade-plus employees I work with. At home, our three months of paleo is up and I feel fine, as I have on just about every diet I’ve tried, but it clearly had not solved any of the problems we’d been tracking for the experiment. And I am sick in bed for a week for a third time this year. Reanna’s parents arrive for a month long visit. I don’t get to see them as much as I’d like, but we get in some fun events (like the Morongo Basin Conservation Association’s “Desertwise Landscape Tour” and Transition Joshua Tree’s Water Catchment Workshop), good talks, good swimming.  I get trained in sand-tray therapy by my supervisor, Richard Gray, which I find quite useful.

Reanna preps cholla buds for dinner

Family dinner at Damian & Maya’s (Damian with Bugzooka)

Doug & Kathryn up San Jacinto

May: We get a great little car, a gift from Reanna’s parents. It gets 38 mpg unless we use the AC.  At work, emotions are high and rumors are flying around. I try to avoid it as much as possible. My coworkers are mostly looking for work with great intensity. I decide that I will chill instead, concentrate on my clients, and do what I can to get my job back with whatever company picks up the military contract in the summer.  Meanwhile,  something is eating my garden. My weekends and after work time is often spent critter-proofing.

The highlight of the month by far is meeting my new nephew, Julian.

Julian in sling

Ollie in work gloves

First scorpion of a scorpion-rich year

June: I’m at 21 clients at the beginning of my last month at MBMH. The management has had me continue taking new clients but I’m starting to get nervous about it. It’s starting to look like my clients will have a significant lapse in services, and it pisses me off. I write people in charge at the county and local journalists but no-one can say how long it will take to get the military program back up and running. I know I’m fine. I can look forward to a full season working at NBTSC if things go badly. It sucks, though, that my clients are just getting dumped. It’s screwed up. I just have to set them up as best I can for the lapse and do the tons of paperwork to close their charts. Meanwhile, my co-worker, Jackie, introduces me to Candy Crush, which starts sucking up the cracks in my schedule.

Highlights: Jonathan & Ayako’s wedding in Idaho. Motorcycle safety class with Reanna. And being married to Reanna, of course.

Living room pano: Ely, Christina, Julian, Ben, Rebeca visit

Ben & Julian

North end pano from on top of Reanna’s sewing RV

Ayako & Jonathan, getting married

July: I’m unemployed again, but within two weeks I get interviewed by Pacific Clinics, the company who got the military contract that I’d been working for at MBMH. It looks like I’ll get the job based on the reputation I’d made for myself in that position. That feels good! It means I’ll miss most of NBTSC this year, too, for the first time in 14 years.

Reanna leaves for OR to do prep work for NBTSC and I delete Candy Crush from my phone so I can get some things done: install AC in our trailer, create an outside pantry, build a greywater cistern, make a front step for the trailer, get my motorcycle license, and a few other things. Satisfying. Then I fly up to OR to work the Camp Latgawa session of NBTSC.

Reanna hangs our laundry while I goof off with the camera

Cistern in progress

Julian & me

August: Finish at NBTSC (wonderful, as usual), and spend a few short days in Eugene at an NBTSC leadership summit, then back to Joshua Tree for my last week of unemployment. I completed some last-minute landscaping and plumbing projects, built a dry toilet and installed a weather station, then started training at Pacific Clinics in Arcadia.

At the end of August, Reanna got back from her travels, and we started shutting down all lights and electronics at 8pm and just hanging out until going to bed. This was lovely. We usually laid in the hammock outside, talking and looking at stars. The desert summer evenings are really, really nice. Especially with Reanna.

My advisee group, NBTSC Camp Latgawa

Ely & Julian before dinner

Reanna & Ollie, downtown Joshua Tree

September: I start making contact with clients and by the end of the month I’m back up to 7 clients. This is exciting, and it’s nice to be working with some of my old co-workers from MBMH, and the new crew at Pacific Clinics is an entertaining bunch. Working full time again limits what I can do in terms of projects, but I manage to put a new roof on the old goat pen/the new outside pantry, go visit Quail Springs permaculture farm, and start building a new composter with my 2-year-old nephew, Ollie.

At the end of the month, I have my first birthday at home in many years. Usually I’m at camp. It’s nice. My family threw me a little party and I’m glad to be here, even though I miss my people at Farm & Wilderness.

Yes, Ollie wants to help build the composter!

Rain Event, 29 Palms

With Reanna & ocotillo, on my 42nd birthday.

I work at the Monterey Business Center in Yucca Valley, California, which is about 250,000 square feet of flat roofs and cement parking lot. I’d been wondering what all that would look like in a rain event and on August 29, 2013 I found out.

Monterey Business Center arial from Google Maps

Monterey Business Center arial from Google Maps

Jackie is not as excited about the rain as I am.

Roof water pours onto the sidewalk and into the parking lot

The parking lots have channels to direct water to the street

Onto the street

Down the street

Off the end of the street

Into a gully. (The blue-topped pipe in the gully says “water” on it. I thought that was hilarious.)

Down the gully

Flash flood in Yucca Valley on Make A Gif

And through the desert

pkvKsi on Make A Gif, Animated Gifs

Until it hits the berm of a road

Until it breaks through onto the road

And starts to flow down the road

This is where it ran out of steam. The water puddled up here and then mostly evaporated, “To rain again on someone else, east of us,” as Buck from Transition JT says. If there had been more water, it would have poured down this road and into a slightly more intentional gully at the end of it:

It would eventually hit the big wash in front of those mountains in the distance and flow east to the dry lake bed that is just west of Copper Mountain, maybe 18 miles away. That’s the lowest point in our watershed.

dry lake

Copper Mountain, Sunfair lake bed in front.

[animated gifs made at MakeAGif]

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.

Because it is so dry in Joshua Tree, water is great for cooling off. According to my calculus-free, 200-level physics education, this works because a tiny bit of the heat energy stored in our bodies is used up every time a water molecule evaporates. It’s almost like the water molecule uses our body’s heat to achieve escape velocity, to become a gas. A lot of water evaporating creates a significant cooling. This is how sweating cools us, if we’re lucky enough to be in a dry area.

So when it is hot, which is every day in the summer, we get wet a lot. Inside, we have spray bottles handy so we can spray each other whenever someone starts complaining about the heat.

Above the stove is the handiest place for the spray bottle.

Outside, we often hose each other off. A good drenching keeps us cool even on the hottest days, until we are dry. Granted, that might only be for 15-20 minutes on a really hot day, but comfort is worth taking breaks that often.

If we’ve stored up some heat from a bike ride or forgetting to hose off, we also have a stock tank in the yard for dunking ourselves:

Reanna, cooling off.

The water stays cool even on the hottest days, also because of evaporation, so it is always refreshing to take a dunk. I built the little platform so when we drain the tank, we can water our plants.

12-inch dirt-filled stock-tank platform with screen lid and hose outlet. This photo was taken before I put plank decking on each side of the platform so we don’t get our feet dirty getting in and out.

We also got a “swamp cooler” from our friends Mike and Sarah. It wasn’t big enough to cool their house, but it’s good for our trailer. Reanna sewed a sleeve to funnel the air into our back window, so we didn’t have to cut a big hole in the wall.

Swamp cooler, on home-made platform

Reanna’s sleeve, held to swamper with a drawstring

Sleeve, inside window, held open by a wire frame

It makes a huge difference. A swamp cooler is simple and effective: A pump pulls hot, dry air from outside through wet sponges, creating cool, moist air inside. The physics involved is similar to sweat-cooling, except the heat energy used to turn the water into a gas is drawn from the air itself.

It requires simple enough plumbing that I could handle it myself:

A splitter where our (lead free) hose feeds the trailer, fitted with a compression joint to attach copper tubing. You can kind of see the copper-tube cutter (red) at the bottom of the frame.

Another compression joint, feeding the float valve that lets water in when the level gets low.

Swamper, inside: The float valve (blue) lets water in. The water pump (green) pulls it up and pours it down the three sponges in the left, right and back (removed) walls. The fan (drum at top) pulls the air in through the sponges and pushes it into the trailer. Simple!

The most fun way to use water to cool off, of course, is swimming. My mom got Reanna and me a month’s pass to the pool at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center (AKA Mentalphysics) as a wedding present, and we used that quite a bit. It was awesome. Thanks, Mom!

Reanna at the JT Retreat Center. Note luxuriously empty pool.

Reanna & Rob at the Joshua Tree Inn’s Hacienda Pines pool.

Matt at JT Inn pool.

Backstroke race at the Yucca Valley High School pool, also open to the public in the summer.

Kids in Ken & Katie’s blowup pool.

Joshua Tree is in the Mojave Desert and hot in the summer. The average high is 100 degrees. That’s not Sonora Desert hot, but it’s still hot. My subjective thermometer of summer temperatures is something like this:

70s: Nice. Rare.

80s: Warm. Still nice.

90s: Hot. The sun is hot.

100s: Baking Wall of Heat. The sun is hot, but the air is also hot.

One option for dealing with this is not dealing with it: Stay inside with the swamp cooler on. If I spend most of the day in the office, my moments spent outside feel refreshing, a warm-up.

Another is dressing for it. If you can avoid the sun, say in a hammock under a tree, I advise being as naked as you can get away with. Bare skin is pretty good at keeping cool via sweat evaporation, at least in the dry of the desert. If you can’t avoid the sun, it’s more complicated. Here’s my yard-work costume:

1) Straw hat with a wide brim, loose enough for ventilation, but not loose enough to blow off in a breeze. I think the sun is good for us, but getting sunburned is not. I get sun on my skin every day but avoid burning. The hat helps with that.

2) Polarized sunglasses. I also think unfiltered sunlight is good for our eyes, and I get a fair amount every day, but hours in this kind of intense light makes me feel like I’ve sunburned my retinas.

3) My best white dress shirt. My wife Reanna was appalled at this sacrifice, but this is how I justify it: a) I do way more yard-work than I do dressing up, so it gets more use. b) It fits really well, so it’s comfortable, doesn’t restrict my motion, and doesn’t get tangled in the saw or drill or plant-to-be-pruned. c) It’s bright white, so reflects the sun really well. d) It has long sleeves, so I don’t have to wear sunscreen on my arms, but I can roll them up when appropriate. e) It has a collar which I can turn up to protect my neck. When the sun is low, my hat doesn’t do the trick for my neck. Again, less sunscreen. f) It buttons up, so I can button or unbutton, as needed, for venting. Most often I have only the second-to-top button fastened for maximum venting plus protecting the skin of my upper chest, which received more than its share of sun damage in my youth. g) Once it has some paint and a few tears, neither of us will feel remotely precious about it.

4) White work gloves. Sometimes gloves are not appropriate to the work I’m doing, but when they are, I wear white cloth gloves with rubberized palms and fingers. They save sunscreen and save my delicate musician hands from injury.

4) Shorts to the knee. Protects my thighs from sun while allowing leg-venting. This does leave my calves vulnerable to sun. In the middle of the day they get somewhat shaded by my body. At other times I can often find a shadow to fall on them. If not, sunscreen or sunburn. I find the trade-off worthwhile.

5) White socks. This is the part I’m most conflicted about. I generally eschew socks when I can get away with it, but in this kind of heat my feet can sweat and get stinky and uncomfortable. Plus, socks help make having sand in your shoes less uncomfortable. And they protect your ankles from sunburn.

6) Light, vented shoes. I wear Nike Free 3s, the most comfortable shoe yet created. They do not protect feet from dropped tools or lumber but, cross my fingers, so far it’s worth it.

Here are a couple photos of the costume, taken by Reanna, missing only socks and gloves: