Flight of fancy

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, July 30, 2013 12:41 AM

I sit at the window and look down at the clouds, at the patchwork of agriculture, green rectangles and squares, deep browns in a sea of sand. I wonder what is being grown and how since it is essentially desert as far as the eye can see.

Small pools of water dance under the sun, hiding in the shadows of the clouds. I see now how the green grows and the deep brown of the churned soil stays as it does, but only in certain areas.

Rolling hills and jagged land, deeply creviced, nature's musings, flow below in both one and three dimensions. The earth from this visage looks almost flat and deathly, haunted. As if another planet entirely than the one most of us know, love and visit on a daily basis. And yet those hills and crevices are as alive as the desert is, with its harshly beautiful landscape, its reptilian creatures, its cactus.

There are roads carved into the landscape, tributaries of civilization. There is the occasional house or other type of building. It is often impossible to tell just as it is impossible to see if there are cars traveling east or west, or if there are people perhaps outside, for however briefly they can stand the desert sun, the heat. It looks deserted, quiet.

Shadows from clouds drape and move across the landscape.

Sun pours in onto my shoulder warming only my left arm. The rest of me, in shorts, a tee shirt and flip flops, is cool though not cold. Maybe just my toes. I'm not wearing any makeup. My hair, washed and dried, is loose and curly, tucked behind my ears. I am tired and not entirely sure of what to make of my life these last few weeks. But right now I am content; I am relatively stress free. I am anxious to get home.

The roar of the engines fills my ears. I smell fresh coffee brewing but it smells bitter, over cooked. I don't want coffee anyway. I rarely drink it in the afternoon. I’m fine with my water, to keep hydrated. Later I’ll have wine. I can almost taste it from here.

Outside my window the desert is receding and more and more houses are coming into view. Small enclaves appear, up against the rugged terrain, nestled almost into the crevices. They are getting more dense. There is a lake, and another. The desert is retreating and civilization is taking its place, if one can called concrete and freeways civilization. I guess one can. It is definitely urban sprawl crawling and seeing it from above is always a sight to behold.

The sun is beginning its descent, as are we. The air and the ground have turned into shades of gray. There is some rain falling and it is good, cleansing. I am at peace. I am flying.

I am flying home.

It is humid

by Lorin Michel Friday, July 5, 2013 8:58 PM

I forget sometimes about humidity.  When you live in the desert or at least on the outskirts of it,  you get very used to dry air. It gets hot to be sure. Over 100 regularly in the summer months and don't believe it when someone says "yeah, but it's a dry heat." Heat is heat and over 100 it doesn't matter. The hottest place on earth is Death Valley with a recorded high of 134. It's in the middle of the desert. Things don't grow there. It is dry and blistering.

Now I'm on the east coast, in McKeesport, in my late Aunt Beryl's house, high above the Allegheny river. The sun is dripping from the sky, through clouds. It is sweltering, everything is damp, even when it should be dry. It is humid.

It's an interesting phenomenon, humidity. It sucks the life and moisture right out of you and deposits it into your hair. I have wavy hair that I can keep somewhat in line in California, but here, it's gone a bit haywire. It curls in unmanageable directions, flips out and then tries to pretend like there's nothing wrong. I had forgotten; I have remembered quickly. 

The air hangs; you can almost see it. Far off clouds gather steam and congregate, first thick and white, then tinged with anger. I watched them from the front stoop of Aunt Beryl's house today as I gazed down the steep, yellowed brick road. At the bottom of the street, only a couple hundred feet at the most, and over the trees, flows the black and brown of the Allegheny. A power boat pulled out from the trees and zoomed across the river, under the gathering humidity.

I knew it would rain again. Rain has a feel to it as it comes in. The air gets heavier; it smells thick and damp. Any breeze dies entirely before resurrecting itself to turn tree  leaves upside down and inside out. There is almost a whisper. The temperature rises ever so slightly.  Then it begins, sometimes in earnest, sometimes timid. The temperature drops and heat rises from the pavement like steam. My hair is curling just thinking about it.

It is humid. My hair may be curlier but my skin is less dry so that's good. In the house, the temp was probably 15 to 20 degrees hotter especially upstairs. There is no air conditioning; instead there are open windows and many fans. I spent time up in the attic, the highest and the hottest room in the house. I went through cupboards and closets and boxes, pulling out old photographs, birth certificates from an immediate family now, nearly a century later, gone.

I found dresses that I remembered my Aunt Eleanor wearing when I was a child. Pink checked light cotton, with a button down front. In those days, they were called housedresses. I don't know what they are called now, if anything. 

I found a portrait of my mother's grandfather in uniform, from World War I. I found one piece swim suits. I found dust and dirt and heat.

After awhile I had to go downstairs. It was simply too hot; too humid.

But today, from the front stoop looking out over the river to the gathering clouds to the stifling attic, I learned to love the humidity, even if just a little. Because once the clouds rained and the air cooled, it was a good day. It was actually lovely.

In which it is hot and I celebrate the first heat wave of the season

by Lorin Michel Sunday, June 30, 2013 1:12 AM

I don’t believe that A. A. Milne, one of my favorite writers because of his devotion to a bear named Pooh, a small swine named Piglet, a morose donkey named Eeyore, a wise Owl, an irritating Rabbit, a bouncing Tigger and a boy named Christopher Robin, ever wrote about excessive temperatures. All of his wonderful characters lived in the Hundred Acre Wood, where they got into mischief, and supported each other, happily. Mr. Milne always started his chapters with the trope In Which. I always loved that and evidently I’m not alone. I see this phrase used a lot around the blogosphere as people describe something that is about to happen, thus moving the conversation forward.

In which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets Into a Tight Place. In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump. In which Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One. In Which Piglet is Entirely Surrounded by Water.

I have to say, that after the last couple of days out here in the west, I’m envious of that little insecure pig in his striped shirt. To be surrounded by water when one is surrounded by crippling heat might be a good thing.

Which is why we are moving to the desert.

It was 102º today in the OP. Bobbi said it was 109º in the valley where they live. A friend of mine who lives in Scottsdale said it was 116º in the shade. The southwest is bathed in a heat wave and it has been sizzling for days. Can’t walk outside barefoot kind of sizzling. Feel your hair color evaporate kind of sizzling. In other words, warm.

Las Vegas was a balmy 117º while Phoenix hit 119º in the middle of the day, breaking a record that has stood since 1944. Much hotter and Sky Harbor will have to ground the planes. Something about not being able to get enough lift when it’s hot like this. I always thought it was because the planes sunk into the tarmac, emphasis on the word ‘tar.’

The appropriately named Death Valley was on track to hit 128º today. Death Valley, a barren but stunning piece of land far to the east of us, has the distinction of being the hottest place on earth, having once clocked a high temperature of 134º about a century ago.

It was hot and tomorrow is supposed to be even hotter. We like the heat but this kind of heat is rather oppressive. We also like to be outside and you can’t really do anything outside. The sun burns your skin the minute you leave the shade. I already mentioned about the hair color problem. It seems almost impossible to get enough water.

It was into this furnace that we ventured several times today, with a little boy in fur, as people came by to take a look at the house, which is currently for sale. We pulled up some shade where the temp dropped to a near-cool 99º maybe. We took water and a bowl for Cooper. Our real estate ladies were so worried about him that on their third trip to the house this afternoon they brought him a travel water bottle, a bottle that hooks into its own trough for easy dispensing, storing and sitting outside in the shade for 20 minutes or so when the temperatures are in the triple digits.

We like the heat. It’s why we’re moving to the desert. But liking the heat and understanding that it can be dangerous go hand-in-hand especially for dogs. I don’t worry so much about cats because they instinctively know how to find the safest, coolest place to be. Dogs just want to be with their people. But their pads can burn and get blistered if they’re on asphalt. Whenever I see someone walking their dog when it’s hot like this, I think they’re idiots. In Arizona, it is literally considered animal abuse, one of the few laws in Arizona I agree with.

Cooper and his dad (Kevin), in the shade

As the day progressed, the temperature remained constant. I thought about Piglet, surrounded by water. I thought about the introduction of new characters, In Which Kanga and Baby Roo Come to the Forest and Piglet has a Bath. More water. New characters in our lives are always good. We have new characters in the guise of our real estate ladies, Debbie and Hillary, sisters who love dogs and love our Cooper.

Tonight, after we’d gone to the store and the temp had dropped even further, down to the low 90s on its way to the high 80s and eventually into the 70s we finally took Cooper for a shortened walk. The sun was setting, bathing the neighborhood in shades of pink and peach and pomegranate. The birds were out, kids had ventured onto the street to skateboard, or play bad mitten, air conditioners clicked off and the world became more normal. It was an every day life in the OP.

It was hot today. Sizzling, oppressive, evaporative, feverish, devilish, blazing, blistering, broiling, scalding, sweltering. Tomorrow promises to be worse.

And that’s OK. We have each other, we have water, we have AC. When it’s hot, we’re ready to live it out loud anyway. But just in case, here, have some water. 

You’ve lost that living feeling

by Lorin Michel Monday, June 3, 2013 12:54 AM

I’ve written before about my love of abandoned things. I find them haunting, magical, full of mystery and even of life. They’re also filled with stories that used to be. Stories of people, of what happened to drive the people away.

On Pear Blossom Highway that runs east in the high desert toward Victorville and ultimately Las Vegas, there are places where houses used to stand. Now there are shells, fireplaces, sometimes the foundations or stone walls of where a family once lived. When we drive east toward Arizona, past Palm Springs, through the Sonoran desert, there are abandoned homes and cars. People used to live there though how I’m not sure since there is literally nothing around for miles. No food, no gas, no civilization. Maybe that was the point. Maybe that is the point.

On Mulholland Drive, out toward Malibu, there is a Ferris wheel. It’s part of Calamigos Ranch. I don’t think it’s abandoned, but it looks like it, tucked as it is amongst the tall grass and unkempt trees. There are abandoned Ferris wheels all over the country – all over the world – frozen in time, mid-ride. If I try, I can still hear the giggles and laughter, the shouts to those on the ground from those up above. You should see the view.

Along the roads, there are abandoned pieces of furniture. Shoes, lost soles, litter the lanes. Sneakers, loafers, slippers, flip flops, boots all poised to take off for somewhere other than where they are. I see them everywhere and I wonder how they got there, if they were just tossed aside, if they left on their own. As if they’re people, as if they have a story to tell. Wait ‘til you hear.

The abandoned are still viable, still have history, a past that is there for us to see, a future that only exists in our imagination. In my imagination. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to have the majority of humanity disappear but still have the air remain healthy, for there to be no danger. In essence, I would be alone with only those I choose to travel the world, finding homes to live in, any home at all. One overlooking the ocean, watching the dolphins swim and the whales spout; the seagulls lazy in the sky. Another home in the mountains with the snow white and untouched, owls in the trees, deer grazing on the protruding grasses. I don’t think of this as gruesome or grisly because I really don’t want to be without human contact. I think it’s just a writer’s fascination with the impossible possibility. And a love of amazing houses.

What would happen if? How would I deal if? Where would I go if?

I wonder if it has anything to do with my fascination of post-apocalyptic fiction. Two of my favorite books take place in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event that destroys most of civilization and leaves the rest to try to make a life out of nothing. The Stand by Stephen King, written in 1978, deals with a virus; The Road by Cormac McCarthy, published in 2006, deals with a blinding light that is never explained. In these books, civilization has been abandoned. There are homes and cars in The Stand but electricity is gone; there is no phone service. In The Road, there is literally nothing, including the sun. The world is gray and cold; no live trees or vegetation; no animals. Only sporadic surviving humans searching for life and fighting to stay alive.

Abandonment and apocalyptic scenarios are frightening, but they appeal to us because of the maybe, the what if, the what would we do. I blame human nature and our constant flirtation with destruction.

Most writers have this fascination. Maybe it has to do with the Bible and the supposed Rapture, but since I’m not religious, I don’t think so. Some have speculated that it’s about good triumphing over evil, but in far too many of the books (The Stand notwithstanding) there is no definitive good or evil to triumph over. It’s simply a battle to survive, of finding the will to do it under unimaginable conditions.

I think it has to do with the possibility of reinventing the world as we would like to see it. Sometimes it’s dark and scary; other times it’s bright and full of opportunity; full of hope.

Either way, I’m pretty sure that my fascination with abandonment and apocalyptic scenarios will undoubtedly continue, not because I’ve lost that living feeling, but because I continue to have that loving feeling. It’s called loving it out loud. 

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live out loud

In which I try to find something positive to say about all of the noisy landscaping equipment used by all of the various landscapers on all of the tiny yards in our neighborhood

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, May 22, 2013 12:21 AM

I think it’s a uniquely California thing. Those of us lucky enough to live in a single family home live in one that is between 1500 and 2200 square feet, on average, on a postage stamp of dirt. The houses are squishily close together. Kevin often jokes that when the neighbor sneezes, he can reach out the window to hand him a tissue. The little stamp of dirt is divided into a front yard, the corner of the stamp, and the back yard, a slightly bigger piece of the stamp. Sometimes there is a bit of yard on one side, not usually on both sides. In track housing, one side of the house is usually concrete for storage of trash barrels and other stuff.

The yards need to be tended because many of the tracts of homes, ubiquitous dwellings all with red tile roofs jammed together in an impossibly small area, have a little something called CC&Rs, or covenants, conditions and restrictions. Most of them will tell the home-dweller what they can and can’t do, and that they have to keep their lawns, at least the front lawns, well taken care of and manicured. For this privilege, many get to pay a monthly fee (we don’t here).

We also get to hire gardeners because dog-forbid we cut our own grass. California is a gardener-rich environment. Drive through any neighborhood between the hours of 7 am and 6 pm, Monday thru Saturday, and you’ll hear the grind and growl and whine and snarl of lawn mowers, weed whackers and leaf blowers. Our own gardeners for our little postage stamp of a yard come on Tuesday afternoon, usually around 3 or 3:30. They pull up in their non-descript and unmarked white van without windows but chock full of gardening stuff. Tools and machines and buckets and barrels. Three guys de-van, all in long sleeves regardless of the temperature, all with big, dirty white canvas hats that provide a little shade to the backs of their necks and keep their faces shielded from the sun. Very dark sunglasses are always perched on their noses. They smile, say hello, and show off very white teeth. Then they fire up their equipment and make my teeth hurt.

On Saturday morning, the people behind us, and I mean reach-over-the-wall-and-touch-something behind us, have their lawn done at around 7:30 am. It’s a little rude especially since our bedroom is in the back of the house so we’re in prime hearing location for the growl and whine of the lawnmower. I hear the truck pull up. Lug to a stop. The doors open. The hatch of the truck creaks. A piece of wood is pulled out, scraping across the metal. A lawnmower wheels down, clunks onto the asphalt. The cord rips from the engine. The engine sputters, cries, and then starts to clamber. As it is pushed through the yard, it spins as the grass is munched. The weed whacker whirs and slices; the leaf blower blows everything into a nice, neat pile so that it can be scooped up with a mostly quiet rake that simply scrapes across the ground.

The whole process takes 10 minutes. It takes 10 minutes at our house, and the house next door. It takes 10 minutes everywhere, unless there’s a bigger yard but people who have a bigger yard, like my old bosses who have 30 acres, also have people that live on the property with the sole purpose of caring for the grounds.

I listen to this equipment daily. I can stand just about everything but the leaf blowers. They make my head ache. But I understand why all of this exists and if I have to find something positive to say because I said I would and because this is a positive blog, then it’s this: the grass always looks good and smells good and grows greener because of the noise of the mower, the screech of the whacker and the deafening wind of the blower.

These guys are doing the work that most people don’t want to do, and they do it with a friendly attitude. I like that. I appreciate that.

Still, I celebrate desert landscaping and can’t wait to someday have it, because there will be no need for power mowers or blowers ever again. That may be the greatest reason of all to celebrate.

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live out loud

Rain dance

by Lorin Michel Sunday, May 19, 2013 10:49 PM

People who dwell in the desert often experience a real craving for rain. For months, the temperatures are in the 90s to 100s, the air is dry, the ground drier. The Sonoran desert, here in the Southwest, is populated by different types of cactus, all of which need precious little moisture, and creatures that seem to thrive in the heat. Many of these creatures are of the reptile variety. Rattlesnakes come to mind, iguanas and gila monsters. But also coyotes, Javelina, white tailed deer.

Still it’s the people that live in the desert who start to opine for some type of moisture. It’s them that I most relate to, for as much as I love the desert, I do so love when the skies get dark and heavy. I love the moment just before the clouds can no longer hold the rain. The air gets thick and the temperature starts to fall. The winds begin to swirl, from the ground up and the sky down all at once. And then it begins. The deluge. It makes me want to dance.

So when I saw something online today about a new installation at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, I could feel my feet starting to move.

Part of EXPO1: New York, it has been installed in an adjacent lot next to the museum, and it invites viewers to control the weather. Step in, shout “make it rain” and suddenly water falls around you, but not on you. The rain actually pauses when it detects body movement. rAndom International, the installers, call it, appropriately Rain Room.

According to the MoMA website, rAndom International is “known for their distinctive approach to contemporary digital practice.” Their projects “come alive through audience interaction and Rain Room is their largest and most ambitious to date. The work invites visitors to explore the roles that science, technology and human ingenuity can play in stabilizing our environment.”

Rain Room uses digital technology, injection molded tiles, solenoid valves, pressure regulators, custom software, 3D tracking cameras, steel beams, water management and a grated floor inside a 100 square foot room to create an exquisitely choreographed downpour of 260 gallons per minute; a dance of rain. Visitors, up to 10 at a time, get to become performers on their own environmental stage.

The hope is that in this unexpected and creative realm, people will experience something emotional and perhaps contemplate their own place on this earth. Or maybe they’ll simply get lost in the splendor of it.

To command the rain, to allow it to fall all around you while carving out your own place within it is perhaps one of the great metaphors for life. We all do it every day, trying desperately to figure out where we belong, where we fit, and how we can command it to be what we need it – what we want it – to be.

It’s impossible, of course. Or is it? Rain Room at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City allows for the possibility that maybe, just maybe, if we try hard enough, if we give ourselves over to the elements, if we just stand there, no matter where we live, no matter where we are in our life, the rain will come down. It will be filled with light and wonder.

And we can dance. 

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live out loud

Sol searching

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, May 14, 2013 1:08 AM

With the passing of winter comes summer. In some parts of the country, and the world, there is a lovely breeze of a season known as spring. Not here. Here, in the golden state, we go straight from chilly nights and frosted mornings to heated days. Yesterday and today both topped out at 102º in Oak Park.

We like the heat. I’ve said before that I believe I was born to live in the Southwest. The climate suits me. There is no snow to speak of, unless one travels to the mountains to ski. And that is where snow should be. Not clogging the roads that lead to the mall or to work. It should only bury the areas where one can slap a board or boards to one’s feet and shoosh down a hill.

I like the dry heat of an environment where the daytime temperatures can climb to over 100 but the nights cool down to the low to mid 60s. Yes, it’s hot. The house gets oppressive and we’re not big on air conditioning (I suspect that will change if and when we move to Tucson) but once it cools and the air starts to flow through the open windows, it becomes comfortable. At night, we still usually need a blanket on the bed when we sleep.

The sun and I have a long history together. I grew up when there wasn’t so much sunscreen as there was suntan lotion and oil. Most of it smelled like coconut and salt water. If we were going to the beach, we slathered on the oil. If we were laying out by a pool, we used lotion because oil left a film on the water. If we didn’t have Coppertone, we used baby oil. It was all about the tan.

It’s no wonder that I have had skin issues with bad moles and a non-staged melanoma. The dermatologist and I are good friends.

I don’t “lay out” any more. I simply don’t have the time, nor the desire to waste precious time doing nothing but burning my skin. But I still love the sun, that low-mass star that sits on the outer edge of the Milky Way, some 93 million miles from California, and consisting of mostly hydrogen (74%). The rest is helium (25%) so that it floats, and 1% of something else undefined. It’s 4.5 billion years old, and still looks fairly good for its age. It rotates completely once every 26 days, which evidently is one reason it is considered a fairly mediocre star. I’m not sure why since it completely supports life on this planet; without it, none of us would exist. Neither would the plants, the other animals or even the life in the oceans. At this point in its life, the sun has another 5 billion years in its own lifecycle before it starts to substantially change. I think it’s safe to say I won’t be around to see it.

At the rate we’re going, the human race won’t be around to see it either.

Perhaps then it’s time to do a little sol searching, to find what it is that is most important to us, to discover the lives we’re meant to lead. To change when we need to change; to think differently. To embrace the sun; to live, truly, soundly, roundly; out loud. Our lives may be predestined by fate, or they may be changeable. I believe both, just as I believe in helping keep the planet cool when and where it’s supposed to be cool, and warm and tropical when and where it’s supposed to be such; and blistering hot under the dusty desert sky of the Southwest.

I’m not searching for the sun today; nor will I for several months. I search instead for the clouds that offer a brief respite. I search for the shade on a hot summer day; for the breeze to cool the air. I know where the sun resides and I am happy to see it every day. It fills my soul with its sol, and even though the heat has been blistering these last two days, I celebrate it. I love it.

Because I love the desert Southwest. I was born to live here.

Surviving survival town

by Lorin Michel Monday, March 25, 2013 9:57 PM

It was a beautiful spring day in 1955. The desert stretched as far as the eye could see, and in the middle of nowhere, a collection of homes and businesses, populated with plastic people, stood welcoming and ready. It was called Survival Town and it was destined to be obliterated on May 5 when the Apple-2 test was conducted at 8:10 am. The winds had calmed when the Army gave the all-clear signal and an atomic bomb was detonated. It weighed 31 kilotons. The blast area extended 3 miles out and essentially destroyed the “people” and the buildings.

Survival Town, however, still survives. Several of the town’s buildings actually withstood the blast, including a structure called Behlen, a corrugated steel structure that was only mildly dented during the explosion, even though it was just 6,800 feet away. Another house still stands starkly in the middle of the desert grass and yucca trees. The windows are gone but the window structures remain. A brick chimney still reaches toward a blue sky. Roof tiles are largely gone, as is the door, but the steps leading to the front door still lead to oblivion. It’s a ghost of a house.

Other bits of structures remain as well, largely gutted. They simply sit on the flats of the Nevada desert, remnants of a nuclear program when we knew what we had but didn’t yet know its devastating power. The Nevada Department of Energy still conducts tours of what still stands, though no cameras are allowed, visitors must be over the age of 14 and pregnant women are advised not to make the trip because of the bumpy bus ride.  It’s like the time that land forgot.

The desert is home to many such times and places. We see them when we drive through the Sonoran desert to Tucson. Discarded homes in the middle of what used to be someplace but is now only on the way to somewhere else. The Nevada desert, in addition to being the birthplace of nuclear bomb testing, is also the home of the infamous Area 51.

Area 51 is an air force base that’s near Edwards Air Force Base. It’s located in a very remote area of the Nevada desert near the dry bed of Groom Lake. It’s probably the most famous military installation in the world that doesn’t officially exist. It doesn’t appear on any public US government maps. For decades, conspiracy theorists and UFOlogists have speculated that the government uses Area 51 to experiment with extraterrestrials and their spacecraft. This is largely because of an alleged government cover-up in 1947 when an alien spaceship supposedly crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. Others have even gone so far as to claim that the moon landing was staged there.

I don’t know all of the details about Area 51. I have read books and heard interviews by a woman named Annie Jacobsen who wrote an uncensored history of the base. She conducted interviews with 19 men who served there for decades, eye witnesses to the area’s history. Most didn’t cop to little green men but did talk of top secret spy planes developed in a program known as Oxcart. One such plane was the Archangel-12 which could travel at speeds of more than 2000 miles per hour and take photographs from an altitude of 90,000 feet. The SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter were also conceived and tested in the place known as Dreamland. These air craft are probably the reason so many desert drifters have sworn they’ve seen UFOs in the area.

The desert hides all the sins of man, burying them in amongst the sand and cactus, the blowing winds and the debilitating heat. There is history there. Here. Great accomplishments have happened; greater disappointments have taken place. It is the land of imagination, both horrific and incredible. It is a place where survival is never assured but if achieved, can be both devastating and glorious. In that way, the desert mirrors life. It can be frighteningly beautiful and disastrous, ugly and lush, full of love and death. And it can all be seen from satellite images, and from the heart.

I am fascinated with the desert, with its history, with its beauty and its unrelenting desire to capture its prey. Again, like life. For that reason, it’s a place to celebrate, for its strength, its character, its soul, its harsh reality, its ability to survive. And so I do, tonight and always. I am a desert rat, after all. And I am living it out loud. 

Pardon me while I switch on my fireplace

by Lorin Michel Friday, March 8, 2013 8:14 PM

When it’s cold outside one of the things I look forward to most is a roaring fire. This winter, it’s been colder than usual with night temps regularly down in the high 20s/low 30s. Cold for Southern California. From what I’ve been told, temps in the entire southwest have been colder than usual. We talked to Architect Mike the other day, in Tucson, and he said it’s been very cold. They’ve actually had snow.

When we bought this house, in 1997, we had only a few must-have criteria. It needed to be in an area with a good school district. We wanted a nice neighborhood. The house needed to have natural gas for cooking and heating, and it had to have at least one wood-burning fireplace. Also, it had to be affordable. We got everything on our list. Our house is not very big, just about 1800 square feet total, with three bedrooms and two and a half baths. The master bedroom is downstairs, off of the great room that provides the space for the dining room as well as the family room. We’ve never been big on having a formal living room. No one ever really uses a formal living room. The family room is, naturally, where the fireplace resides, on the sidewall in the back corner of the house. It has a gas starter, which makes it very easy to get one of those big roaring fires going. Each night, we turn on the gas, light it with a long lighter and sit back and enjoy the snap, crackle and pop; the hiss and sizzle; the smoke as it curls up the chimney; the red glow and gray ash; the smell. I love it all.

Our new house will have four fireplaces including one out on the patio. There will also be a big one in the family room, one in the master bedroom and one in the guest suite. I’ve never had more than one fireplace. I can hardly imagine the ambiance. The house will have that amazing light that only emanates from a fire, eerie and soft, warm and cold all at once. The Sonoran desert gets very cold at night and we’ll be in the northeast corner of the city, as the Catalina highway climbs up into the mountains toward Mt. Lemon. There is skiing up there, so there is snow. The temperatures drop into the teens. Having a fireplace out on the patio, where we can sit regardless of the temperature, sipping a glass of Michel Cellars Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon, looking out over the spooky glow of towering Saguaro cactus on an otherwise clear night, will be spectacular. In my imagination, I’m there already; I’ll be there tonight.

As someone who grew up in the Northeast and thus was thrust into frigid temperatures for nearly six months of the year, you would think I’d be tougher when it comes to being cold. But I’m cold all the time. I’m one of those people, like Sally Allbright in When Harry Met Sally, who gets cold when it’s 72º out. During cold, rainy days like today when the air is raw, the house never seems to warm up. I sit in my loft office and freeze. Or at least I used to, but now I have a fireplace in my office, too.

No, we didn’t knock out a wall to put in a pre-fabricated fireplace unit. I didn’t blow a hole in the ceiling so that smoke from my little campfire could waft up and out. It’s much more simple than that because my office fireplace is electric. Kevin bought it for me last year and it has been getting quite a bit of use this year.

It’s very stylish, with its metallic red case and black face. It has three speeds. One is just the electric flame, for romantic mornings in front of the computer sipping a hot cup of coffee. Low keeps the flame flickering while also blowing out gentle heat, enough to wrap around my feet and rise toward my hands, keeping my fingers warm as I type furiously. I’ve never had it on high, that’s how well low works.

Until I can sit out on my patio in Tucson, looking out over the city, with our nearly 300º views, until I can lounge in my bed on a stormy Sunday with the fire blazing in the room, until I can cook in the kitchen and still hear the snap, crackle, pop, hiss and sizzle coming from the great room, until then I will enjoy my lovely fireplaces here in the OP, the one downstairs and the one here in my office. Here, let me switch it on and show you.

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live out loud

Things that go grrrrrrr in the night

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, February 5, 2013 8:46 PM

I have always been a bit of a night owl. I can’t stay up as late as I used to for a number of reasons, mostly due to the fact that by 11 or 11:30 I’m pretty tired. I start my days early and no matter how much a person loves the night, that person needs to go to bed in order to recharge her batteries. When I was in college, it was much easier to be up until all hours of the night, especially since I worked in a restaurant. Restaurant people never go to bed until the sun is coming up. I made sure to never schedule early morning classes because of it.

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer but there’s something about the night that is both comforting and mysterious. It obscures so much of what is normally visible during daylight hours and it offers the chance to imagine, to live and breathe during a time of reflection and great quiet.

But last night, the great quiet was interrupted by something going grrrrrr or scrape or drag. It was around 3 am, which seems to be when most things happen to awaken me when I’m supposed to be sleeping. Often times, it’s biological. Sometimes, it’s neurological, and occasionally it’s visceral. Sometimes these things happen, where I think I’ve heard something and I come to realize that it’s just me, in my brain, perhaps a dream. But last night, it wasn’t just me. Cooper heard it, too. From his kennel in the corner of the room, he began to elicit a low barklll, which is what I call a bark followed by a short guttural growl followed by another bark. It was the kind of bark he uses when he’s not sure if he needs to be concerned. The concerned bark is ferocious and loud.

Once again, as always, I sat up in bed, listening. I was sure that I’d heard something, I just couldn’t figure out what it was. Maybe something I have propped up against a wall slid down and the noise came from it sliding across the floor or down the wall. But I couldn’t figure out what I had propped that was heavy enough to growl. I did give Kevin an engraved wine barrel head that is against the wall in the dining room, but it just didn’t seem right.

Maybe the 1948 bicycle we have secured on the bridge above the entrance way somehow started to break free and drag. But I quickly dismissed that, too, since when Kevin hooked that very heavy steel to the wall, it was into a wall stud. There’s simply no way it could be on the move.

It could have been a tile, sliding down the other tiles on the roof I supposed but that would have to be discovered in the morning.

“What are you doing?” Kevin whispered.

“I heard something that sounded like a growl.”

“It was probably Cooper.”

“It wasn’t Cooper.” But he was already asleep, his breathing easy and steady, also not concerned.

And then my imagination started working as it so often does in the middle of the night when I’m wrapped up in darkness with only occasional sounds to distract me. I had heard a growl, I was sure of it. But what was it?

Suddenly, my mind saw a cat. No! A mountain lion. Somehow one had gotten into the house and was stalking through the hall, low and menacing. No. That’s ridiculous. First, we don’t really have mountain lions and even the rare one couldn’t get into the house. It’s way too suburban, too civilized. Couldn’t happen.


Once we move to Tucson, that will change. We’ll be in the middle of nowhere. Our four acres are on the edge of town. The hills to the east are dense with cactus and trees and rocks. Our property is much the same. We already know we have deer. When we’ve been out there at night, we hear other noises crunching around above us; we’ve heard the call of something. We’ve heard growls.

When we’re finally in our house, we’ll be all alone. If a creature gets in to our home, and growls on its way to finding us, we’ll be ALL ALONE. In the middle of NOWHERE. It could happen. It could. I can see it, or rather hear it. OMG. IT’s coming.

Cooper gave a final ruff and a heavy sigh and settled back into his kennel to go back to sleep. Whatever he heard, he decided it wasn’t worth risking his life to investigate. Soon he was snoring, along with Kevin. The danger had evidently been averted. It was time for me to turn off my imagination and settle back down to sleep.

I snuggled under the covers, found the perfect spot and allowed sleep to wash over me.

GRRRRRLLLLLLL! Wide awake and awaiting the lion.

Sometimes having an imagination is nothing to celebrate. Especially when it’s living out loud at 3 am. 

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live out loud

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