Tulips in January

by Lorin Michel Monday, January 28, 2013 8:05 PM

About a week and a half ago, our friend and hairdresser extraordinaire, Tammy, came to the house for dinner and cocktails. We hadn’t seen her socially for a while and we’ve known her forever. We’re all Survivors of Sebastian as we long ago dubbed ourselves and anyone else who worked for Sebastian International in the 1980s and 90s and lived to understand its meaning. It was a brutally creative place to be but it gave me so much. It taught me how to work and create quickly and sometimes brilliantly, showed me that boring is for others, and introduced me to some of the best people I know. Most if not all of my friends here in California are people I met while interned in the grand Pyramid in Woodland Hills (Sebastian’s headquarters). We share a past and an understanding of what it meant to work under those conditions and to produce some of the most amazing products and corresponding creative the professional hair care industry had ever known.

I was their senior writer. Roy was the art director. Bobbi was a senior designer. Diane was a freelance designer. Kevin (we were not involved at the time; only knew each other peripherally) was the Vice President of Southern California Sales. Tammy was the head of the color team for education. She’s a master colorist. She left Sebastian years ago, as we all did, and opened her own salon. She’s been cutting and coloring my hair since we were both at Sebastian. She’s been cutting and coloring Kevin’s hair since he and I got together, post Sebastian. Bobbi sees her regularly as well. Roy prefers to get his hair chopped at one of the local in and out shops.

The night Tammy joined us, she brought with her a number of things to eat, all from Trader Joe’s so all wondrous. There was a frozen spinach dip that we microwaved. It was excellent. But I think my favorite was a blueberry wrapped loaf of goat cheese. I could have eaten the whole thing.

She also brought a small potted plant containing three tulip stalks. I promptly put it in the greenhouse window.

Tract houses in California often have greenhouse windows off of the kitchen, above the sink. That’s where ours is. It’s basically just an extension of the countertop, with a shelf, but it is surrounded by glass on all sides as well as on top. The top cranks open to allow in air as needed or to release any heat. Most of our neighbors seem to use their greenhouse windows for pots and pans. They have stacks on both levels. I’ve always wondered why. It’s rather unsightly, and there is ample cupboard space in the kitchen. There is plenty of room for pots and pans beneath the stove. We have the smallest style house in our tract, I have a ton of kitchen stuff, and I have no need to put my cooking utensils in the sun with hopes that they’ll grow.

Our greenhouse window has only plants, including the official Saguaro cactus that Kevin gave me for mother’s day the year we bought our property in Tucson. It hasn’t grown much and I don’t expect it to for another 75 years or so. We also have several other plants that thrive in some direct sun but always direct light, at least until the night arrives. The tulips have been sitting on the bottom level, next to the cactus, since their arrival. I’ve given them some water, just enough to keep the soil moist, as the directions said.

This morning, it was 39º. The air was still, our breath crystallized before dissipating as we walked Cooper. When we returned to the house and a cup of hot coffee, we also discovered flowers. My tulips were blooming in shades of deep pink and white.

Because of the remarkable cold we’ve had this winter, with frost and chilling temperatures, a number of outdoor plants have died. Our neighbor’s date tree has become petrified and black, suffering from frostbite, frozen to death just over the wall. We lost several of our bougainvilleas; there are no flowers currently blooming anywhere in the Southland.

But today, in my kitchen, beneath my greenhouse window, next to the Saguaro, I had tulips. It was a good day.

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Dreams of my ...

by Lorin Michel Saturday, October 20, 2012 10:42 PM

On this late, groggy Saturday night, I’m reclined on the love seat in the great room, my slippered feet stretched out over the edge, my body wrapped up in sweatpants and an oversized flannel shirt. My laptop is on my lap, living up to its category, and I am listening to the sounds of sweet jazz and the remnants of rain, leaves heavy with moisture dripping down onto one another and finally to the ground. The skies are cloudy. From my perch I can’t see them but I can feel them, the heaviness of the sky invades the backyard and oozes in through the sliver of the sliding glass door that’s open and inviting the fresh damp air.

It’s been a long day. The grapes were pressed this morning and we now have nine gallons of syrah grape juice. The fermenter and various pieces of equipment are clean and stored; the juice sits in glass carboys on the workbench in the garage. It will sit there for several days before entering the next phase of its young life.

Once we returned from our pressing journey, we showered, changed and went out again for a phone bank for Organizing for America, calling people to urge them to continue their support of President Obama. My friend Connie went with us. For three hours we dialed phone numbers on provided sheets in the hopes of someone picking up on the other end to speak to us nicely, without malice of interruption, without having decided to vote to the right. It was an interesting atmosphere. The building we were in was a call center by trade. Each day, dozens of people sit at the same desks we occupied and call people to try to sell them, convince them, connive them into buying something they’re not sure they want or to support something they’re not sure of. The irony was not lost.

I found myself drifting into daydreams several times as I waited for someone to answer a number I had dialed. In my dreams, I saw the rolling desert of Tucson, covered with Saguaros as they reached for the sky, and Kevin and I in our new home, waiting for the wonder of an encroaching thunderstorm, enjoying the anonymity of our home on the hill. I saw my niece at her Halloween party last night, dressed as a flapper and enjoying herself with her girlfriends. I wondered what she looked like and sent a text to my sister between phone calls. She promised to send photos.

I let my mind wander to my family, so many of whom are no longer with me, with us, and I wondered how they would see the world these days. The anger, the resentment, the entitlement, the hope. My grandmother, my dad’s mom, who died in 2001 at 93. I wondered if she was a democrat and decided she probably was; she had been a teacher. My great aunt, my dad’s mom’s sister, who died just a couple of years ago, also in her 90s. I wondered how she saw the world when she was still in it. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, who died several years ago as well, at 91. I wondered if she had ever really enjoyed her life. I wondered if any of them had.

My thoughts drifted then to my dad, who died in 2002, and who would have absorbed the news of the day with hardly a mention of how it made him feel. I admired that in him, and yet, I think keeping all of that in – his joy, his anger, his hurt, his dreams – contributed to him dying at such a young age.

How had any of them dreamed of … ? Had they dreamed at all?

Today I dreamed of grapes and wine, of rain and wondrous gloom, of phone calls to strangers who became instant friends, albeit virtually, and co-conspirators in this 17 days until the election. I dreamed of spending time with friends, of sharing wine and cheese and politics and more wine and funny stories. I dreamed of my future and my past, of my father, my grandmothers, others lost, those still living and full of love. My mother, my sister, my niece and nephew, my brother; my son. I dreamed. They dream.

“With our eyes closed, we uttered the same words, but in our hearts we each prayed to our own masters; we each remained locked in our own memories; we all clung to our own foolish magic.”

The quote is from page 163 of the book Dreams from my father by Barack Obama. I don’t know if it’s foolish to dream or foolish not to. But I do believe in magic, and I will cling to it as long as I have dreams.

On this Saturday night when the weather is drifting and the air is chilled and fine, I am dreaming of so much.

I am dreaming of … 

The great first paragraphs from "Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West"

by Lorin Michel Sunday, August 12, 2012 8:16 PM

“Snow in the desert

“Long before the boom of the aughts, long before the bust, I made a pilgrimage to the desert. When I arrived, snow suffused the sand, icicles hung from the yucca spikes. It was late 1997, the beginning of an El Niño winter.

“I’d come running from Mexico City and stopped in the Mojave because it was close to Los Angeles, my hometown, and because that’s where people from L.A. – in trouble with the law, their lovers, their creditors, themselves – go to hide out, lick their wounds, end the affair, bury the body.

“I went because my friend Elia was there. She, along with a small crew of L.A. expatriates, optimistic bohos, was creating a life for herself in the village of Joshua Tree, at the edge of the famous national park. Their presence unwittingly helped set the scene for a full-blown art colony and a season of wild speculation in the mid-2000s.

“Me, I was simply trying to save my life.”

These are the great first lines to Rubén Martínez’ new book Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West. As regular readers know, I’m a huge fan of the desert in all of its unforgiving beauty. It is capable of both majesty and terror, making it both a hero and a villain. Perhaps that’s why I’m so fascinated by it. I suspect, though, that it’s only one reason. Equally, I suspect that the major reason for my love of this most brutal of climates is that it is truly a haunting and haunted place, one of mystery and the ultimate wild creature, made even more so than by humans’ incessant need to tame it. My husband and I fall victim to that ourselves, with our love of Tucson and our own piece of desert land.

When I heard of Mr. Martínez’ book, just today in the book section of the Los Angeles Times, I knew I had to go to Barnes & Noble and buy it. I did. He writes unflinchingly of what happened to areas of the desert southwest, the land populated by cactus and sand, scorpions and snakes, when the economy boomed in the 1990s and early 2000s, and then chronicles the devastation that was left when the bubbles burst. There is both politics and demographics at play, outrageous wealth and destructive poverty, beauty amid the ruins. 

He candidly discusses his own battles with drug addition – a habit he moved to northern New Mexico in order to beat and ironically ended up right in the middle of an the epidemic of addiction that flourishes in the shadow of some of the country's richest zip codes.

From the publisher: In Joshua Tree, California, gentrification displaces people and history. In Marfa, Texas, an exclusive enclave triggers a race war near the banks of the Rio Grande. And on the Tohono O'odham reservation, Native Americans hunt down Mexican migrants crossing the most desolate stretch of the border.

With each desert story, Martínez explores his own encounter with the West and his love for this most contested region. In the process, he reveals that the great frontier is now a harbinger of the vast disparities that are redefining the very idea of America.

I can’t wait to finish this book.

As if someone took a paintbrush

by Lorin Michel Saturday, July 7, 2012 2:06 AM

Since I’m still in the desert, in all of its hot, glorious wonder, I write today about its colors. Harsh whites, deep blacks, vibrant reds and more. These colors paint the rocks that surround the sands and can positively make you sigh even as they make you wonder.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of the west. I don’t know why. I always thought it was because I had been born in the wrong place; that I was suppose to live out here. I had never been west until college, at least no further west than Western Pennsylvania, but there was something haunting about the west, something magical, something that drew me here. I’ve said before that I packed my 1979 Toyota Celica hatchback a week to the day after I graduated from college and started my trek to the western states of this fine country of ours. I was supposed to drive with my good friend Jennifer but she bailed on me because of her boyfriend, who, coincidentally, also lived in California. I decided to go anyway, and managed to convince my mother to drive with me.

Truth be told, I think she wanted the temporary escape. She and my dad were separated at the time and had been for several years. She had begun a relationship with someone else. I think she was having a mid-life crisis. But I welcomed the company. My mother is only 20 years older than me and when we drove across the country she was only 42. Young, vibrant, beautiful; full of energy and a desire for change. We were quite the team; Thelma and Louise minus the crime and minus the vintage T-bird. Still, it was fun. I didn’t mind then staying in cheap motels (there were still motels then; don’t know if there still are); my mother did. I thought she was a snob. As I’ve gotten older I realize exactly what she felt. I wouldn’t be caught dead now in the places I stayed then. She was a good sport; much better than I would have been.

We drove through Pennsylvania and stayed with some friends. Then we went through Ohio and stopped to see a soccer buddy of mine from college. He lived in a fleabag apartment in Akron. I think his name was Mel. Again, when I think back I can’t help but wonder what my mother must have been thinking. Since I was just 22, I didn’t even think about it then. It was all about me and what I wanted to do, who I wanted to see, where I wanted to go. She was simply company.

Horrible child. Typical of the age. Unfortunately.

There was no internet then, no cell phones. We planned the trip with AAA books, taking a route that went largely through the center of the country. We hit Indianapolis on the weekend of the Indy 500. We went through St. Louis and stopped to gawk at the arch. We went through Kansas, which was endless and nothing but cornfields and wheat. I remember wondering what would happen if the car broke down, if we ran out of gas.

Then we ventured across the border into Colorado. I remember being surprised that it was so brown. I had always thought Colorado was green and had lots of tall mountains covered with snow regardless of the time of year. We pressed on and eventually found Colorado Springs. I didn’t know anything about the town but mom remembered that friends of ours from when I was just a kid had moved out there. She remembered that the woman, Marla, was a pharmacist. We had no idea how to find her so we pulled into a mall. It had a pharmacy. Mom went in and said she was looking for Marla Payne and had no idea how to find her but wondered if there was a way to find her through pharmacies. Turns out, Marla worked at that pharmacy. She wasn’t there, but the person called her and told her that Joyce Shields was there. Marla drove to meet us within 15 minutes. We stayed with them for at least two days, visiting the sites around the area. We went to Aspen. Gorgeous. We shelled shrimp and ate them by the pound. We had a wonderful time.

From there we headed south. My ultimate destination was San Diego. It was where I had secured a room in a house (which was a real sh*t hole but I didn’t know that at the time). South took us to Arizona.

At sunset one night as we were getting very tired and just needing to find a place to stay, we stumbled upon a bunch of people pulled off to the side of road. We had no idea where we were but thought maybe we should stop and take a look. We parked, and got out of the Celica, shaking the miles from our legs, and walked to where everyone was. We were at the Grand Canyon. Imagine the shock of walking up to something, having no idea where you are, and seeing that. The sheer depth, majesty, color and wonder of it is nearly impossible to put into words. Even at 22, I was astounded. I don’t know that I’ve seen anything so profoundly moving since. It was both one dimensional and 3-dimensional at once.

The next day, we drove through the Painted Desert, a multicolored layer cake of rock. It’s narrow, just 160 miles long, and begins just 30 miles from the Grand Canyon. Wind and rain have made the rocks erode, hastened by the torrential Arizona monsoons, and the deeply cut, narrow gullies of sandstone and mudstone show off iron and aluminum in hues of red, orange, pink, blue, gray and lavender. It looks as if someone took a paintbrush to the landscape, a landscape you’re living in.

I remember standing there and breathing in the color, astonished by it, frightened by the strangeness that is the west, and yet exhilarated by the possibility.

There is nothing like the color of the desert; nothing like the rock formations. It is haunting in its beauty, beautiful in its color and always a surprise.

Tonight, our last in Tucson, I’m celebrating the painted colors of the desert. Living it out loud. 

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Things I see and saw

by Lorin Michel Thursday, July 5, 2012 1:10 AM

On the road today, driving east about 500 miles through the desert on the way to Tucson. Fascinating place, the desert. It’s flat and desolate, nothing for miles and miles on either side of the freeway. The navigation on the dashboard has nothing on it but two orange lines for the 10 freeway. There’s a yellow arrow on our side, showing us the direction we’re traveling. In case we didn’t know. It’s literally due east.

Off in the distance, seemingly all around us, are the small rock formation cum mountains that are so famous in the desert southwest. We’re driving under cloud cover, something new for us as the desert always seems to be scorching. There is sun highlighting one of the rock formations to the northeast. All around it, the other rocks are in shadow, flattening them against the depth of what’s been exposed by the sun. Heavy thunderclouds are tucked behind the rocks, like clouds below the clouds, nearly touching the ground. We’re supposed to have thunderstorms tonight and tomorrow. It’s already rained a bit, just enough to put spots on the clean car.

Along our two-lane side of the road there are countless pieces of black rubber, some quite large, nearly a tire. There is little else save for tumbleweed that has not yet broken free to tumble, desert brush and the occasional cactus. We haven’t yet gotten deep enough into the desert that we’re surrounded by the towering saguaros that can grow to nearly 100’. Soon.

There are tons of 18-wheel trucks, surprising for a holiday. Though as Kevin said, if they’re long-haulers, it’s just another day in the week for them. We cruise alongside them, passing nearly every one. Occasionally one pulls into our lane to pass another and we have to get off the cruise control. But only for a minute.

It’s 82º, cool for the desert in July.

Off to the right is what appears to be the remains of a building, made of stones. It has no windows, no doors and no inhabitants save for the creatures of the desert. Maybe not even that. It’s desolate. I wonder if anyone ever lived there and why.

The satellite radio is set to channel 32, The Bridge. It’s billed as classic rock meets mellow, and it plays music only from the 60s and 70s, maybe early 80s. Groups like Crosby, Stills & Nash, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Blood, Sweat & Tears, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Carly Simon. You get the idea. We’re in heaven. We love this kind of music. I was never big on hard rock, nor did I like the bubble gum pop that was popular in the 70s, before, during and after the dreaded disco era. Chicago is on now. Feeling stronger every day.

On the ground, a shattered box spring and destroyed mattress, collateral damage from an ill-fated moving trip. Above it, a billboard for mattresses.

78º. The air looks heavy. I used to run when the air was like that. It always felt as if it pushed ten pounds into my lungs. I know that wasn’t the case; but it felt like it. It didn’t feel that way when I ran in the rain. Just the threat of rain made it harder to move; the actual rain made it easier. I wonder if the heavy air makes it more difficult for the car to cut through. No matter. We’re still getting better gas mileage in this car than in the other. About 20 miles per gallon. It may not seem like a lot but for an SUV weighing 6000 pounds, it’s better than we expected; better even than what was advertised.

We had a bit of lunch, ham and cheese, grapes, blueberries and bottled water. We never stop for fast food. Instead, we pack a picnic of sorts. The new car has a refrigerator in the center console. Kevin wondered about having a martini in about two hours. I told him we’d need an emergency martini kit, which he promptly named MIT. Martinis in transit.

We’re getting close to Phoenix. The traffic has picked up. We’re still moving along at about 75 but there are significantly more cars in front of and behind us. If someone spooks and hits their brakes, there’s going to be trouble. There are also more billboards, and now, finally some cookie-cutter houses beginning to appear in clumps of desert brown and dusty orange stucco. Rain has again begun to dot the windshield.

The first time I drove east to Phoenix from San Diego I remember crying when I got there. The now discarded first husband and I were moving there because he had gotten a job. The west side of Phoenix was the ugliest, raunchiest place I could remember being in and I had been to some real fleabag places on the drive across the country just a year earlier. Gallup, New Mexico comes to mind. Luckily, as we drove further east, it got prettier. In the twenty-five years since that first trip, Phoenix has expanded significantly. It got caught up in the splendor of the 90s and early 2000s and built itself up and out. It got caught, though, doing that, and is now suffering quite a bit. I’m not a fan of Phoenix; never was, even when I lived there for a year.

But Tucson is different. Yes, the west side of town is decidedly unattractive. Drive along the foothills though, to the north of the city, nearly on the county line, and it gets quite beautiful. Small, unassuming. Pleasant and polite.

Eric Clapton is singing Wonderful Tonight. I think I’ll use that as our theme song for tonight, this July 4th, when we stand atop our property and, should the storm not materialize, watch the fireworks in the distance. Wonderful tonight. Wonderful tonight.

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My love affair with a certain city in the 48th state

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, February 14, 2012 11:32 PM

Today is the 100th birthday of the red state of Arizona, and I don’t mean red just in terms of politics. This state, which sits just to the east of Southern California and, like us, also borders Mexico, is home to the Painted Desert and the exquisite Grand Canyon. It also offers the red rocks of Sedona, just north of Phoenix and Scottsdale. Yes, a good portion of Arizona is in the Sonoran Desert, but even more of it isn’t. There are the mountains of Flagstaff, where snows fall regularly. Snow also falls in the Canyon, and rains fall regularly in the areas north of Phoenix. But from Phoenix south to our beloved Tucson, the rains come in the form of monsoons, gale force winds and suddenly blackened skies that break open to release the driving storms that flood the roads and rush down the washes.

Arizona became a state on February 14, 1912 so today is their centennial celebration. I don’t know what they’re doing, if anything, but I imagine somewhere, some of their nearly 6.5 million people might be doing something fun. It’s probably not the Native Americans of whom there are nine different tribes including the Navajo Nation, the Hopi, Apache and Yuman tribes, the Yaqui peoples and Tohono O’odham. Maybe it’s those of Mexican ancestry (27%), German (16%), Irish (11%), English (10%) or Italian (nearly 5%). Maybe it’s some in the biggest city, Phoenix, or the second biggest city, Tucson. Maybe it’s all.

Downtown Tucson in winter

It was Marcos de Niza, a Spanish Franciscan, who first explored the area that would become the 48th state. It was 1539. Fortified towns were established first in Tubac in 1752 and in Tucson in 1775. When Mexico achieved its independence in 1821, Arizona became known as Arizonac derived from the O’odham name ali sonak, and became part of Nueva California. It was recognized as a Confederate territory by Jefferson Davis on February 14, 1862, the first time its name of Arizona was officially used. After the war, when President Lincoln signed a bill recognizing the territory, names like Gadsonia, Pimeria, Montezuma and Arizuma were also considered but the bill read Arizona and Arizona it became. When it became a state 100 years ago, it was the last of the continental states to be admitted.

Like so much of the west, Arizona has a long and storied history. It had German and Italian POW camps during World War II as well as Japanese-American internment camps. It has a history of forcing Native American children to assimilate into Anglo-American culture. It is home to many retirees because of its warm, dry climate – evidently good for arthritis and other ailments – and it is the name of the ship that lies at the bottom of Pearl Harbor with hundreds of sailors’ remains still entombed.

It is also the home of the previously mentioned Tucson, a city we have absolutely fallen in love with. Both Kevin and I have been to the Grand Canyon. I lived in Scottsdale for a year in the mid-80s, a year when I spent many weekends in Sedona to escape the heat of the valley. I’ve been to Prescott and Jerome. But neither of us had ever been to Tucson until we took Justin to the University of Arizona in August of 2009. We drove the 525 miles from Oak Park across the desert, pretty much a straight shot east, with a sharp right turn south at Phoenix, and got off at Speedway, the main drag leading to the college. From the 10 Freeway to the school is maybe a mile, two at the most, and it’s a horrible street. The bungalows that line the road are run down, bars protect the windows and doors. Kevin and I exchanged worried glances. We weren’t sure this was such a good idea. But the school was lovely, and after Justin kicked us to the curb because he wanted to set up his room and get to know the school, we went to the place we had chosen to stay, a place north of the UofA and in the foothills, and as we drove the roughly 8 miles to reach the Westward Look, we gradually began to change our minds. The scenery got prettier, the hills beckoned, we explored, and by the time the next morning rolled around, we were in love.

The backyard of our Tucson property

Tucson is just 60 miles north of the border and has 520,116 people according to the most recent census report. The northern part of the city traces the line of the Catalina foothills, the southern nestles itself firmly into the Sonoran. It has no grass, save for the golf courses. All yards are populated with saguaro cactus, mesquite and organ pipes, another type of cactus. There is a dark skies ordinance that keeps the ground dark and the night sparkling with stars. And the people we have encountered are quite simply lovely, helpful, willing. Real.

While we’re not fans of the political climate of the state, we are huge fans of our adopted city, so much so that we bought several acres in the far northeast corner. Someday we’ll build a house and we’ll watch the sunrise in the east and see it set in the west. We’ll watch the twinkling lights of the city from afar. We’ll drink wine on our patio, under the cover of the stars, and we’ll fall in love again every night.

Arizona’s red is most often attributed to politics, especially lately. But on this Valentine’s day, I’m attributing it to love, to our love of our next adopted state and our Tucson.

Happy Birthday, Arizona. Happy Valentine’s Day, Tucson. We love you.

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Into the sunset

by Lorin Michel Saturday, September 3, 2011 11:11 PM


I’ve never known any real cowboys, only those in the movies, and most of them are like cartoon characters. I’ve read and studied quite a bit, though, and I appreciate how the real cowboys worked in the old days of the west and how many still do. It’s a calling, I imagine, like anything else, and a tough life. Long days in the hot sun, long nights under a sky carpeted with stars, cold early mornings and a lot of loneliness. But the beauty of the western landscape would make it worth it and I suspect it’s one of the reasons many chose and choose the life. Stretches of barren plains, the hard unforgiving earth ready to wash away at even a hint of rain, rolling hills made treacherous by rocks and loose vegetation, all spreading out as far as the eye can see. There are no houses, no towns, no cities. No urban sprawl or hip-hop music blasting from passing cars; no true modern amenities. Cowboys still sleep under the sky.

I thought about that today as we drove west across the Sonoran desert, heading home from Tucson. It’s flat and bleak, with a blight of asphalt jungle, the 10 freeway, running through it for hundreds of miles. That’s the only hint we were in the 21st century as much of the landscape is still untouched, largely uninhabitable because of the terrain and the heat. So much of it seems to be in the middle of nowhere. Occasionally we’d see an abandoned structure, the windows long broken by who knows what, perhaps sand storms or driving monsoons. It would sit impossibly low, as if no one could truly stand up inside. Maybe it was just our perspective from the road. There were no doors, no clutter, no rusting metal tools or cars; just a building that someone resurrected once upon a time and then left to whither in the unforgiving desert heat. I wondered who, and then we were past.

We drove on, direction due west, on our steel horse, the cruise control set at 82, trying to beat the sun. It always seemed to be just beyond our reach, moving further and further down in the sky no matter how fast we went. Finally we stopped trying and settled in for the ride and its beauty.

Jack Kerouac wrote a novel, published in 1957, called On the Road about two friends, Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise who meet in 1947 New York City and begin three years of restless journeys back and forth across the country searching for adventure, for truth and for passion. It was an autobiographical work with a stream of consciousness style. An acquired taste to be sure. Kerouac was part of the Beat Generation, writers who celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity. Most Beatnik writers like Kerouac were inspired by other writers like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, also non-conformists who sought to change how the world thought, acted and reacted through commentary, analysis and poetry. The poet William Carlos Williams was also a big influence. His poem The Dance is one my all time favorites.

Writers like Kerouac were dedicated to respecting the land and indigenous peoples and creatures, much like today’s cowboys. (The old children’s game of cowboys and Indians notwithstanding.) Kerouac’s own description of On the Road was that “the Earth is an Indian thing,” meaning rich in history, in culture, in what’s real. In some ways, it’s horribly naïve; in others, it’s exquisitely beautiful and introspective. That’s what the cowboys have always gotten right: the idea that truth is in the land, in nature. It is all around us, still waiting to be absorbed and appreciated and loved.

Tonight, we’re back in California with our beloved Maguire. We have the windows open and the air is cool. Crickets are chirping and we’ve opened a bottle of Arizona wine, a Syrah made by Kief-Joshua. It has hints of dust and the sunset, of deep pomegranate and desire. A perfect wine to drink this night, with the stars blanketing the sky and the earth and the memory of the desert still in our minds and hearts.

When we close our eyes we’ll see the fire of the sun as it drifted toward the horizon, changing from white hot to bright yellow to orange to red as it sizzled into the sea, extinguishing its heat as it pulled the sky over for cover. We’ll relive our journey and rejoice.

“The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream.” Jack Kerouac, On the Road, Part 1, Chapter 7.

And then it rained

by Lorin Michel Friday, September 2, 2011 11:13 PM


Tucson day two. It dawned early for us, around 7. We got up, went for a long walk around the resort, and then headed to Gold, one of the restaurants, for a buffet breakfast. And coffee. It wasn’t yet hot, maybe high 70s but desert heat is different. It’s hard to explain. We get heat in California but with it comes a breeze that almost always has a hint of cool in it, even if it’s only tickling the edges. In the desert, there is simply no respite. The sun beats down, the air is hot and heavy, any breeze equally so. It radiates. And we love it.

We headed east to visit our little piece of dirt at the base of the mountains. Driving along the Catalina foothills is beautiful. It’s not lush but it’s strong and peaceful, and dry. Countless saguaros reach for the sky having found some kind of life in the earth beneath. Luckily they don’t need much. The ground is light, sandy dirt; there is very little grass. I noticed that in the few places where grass had been planted, like the entrance to an apartment building or a church, their sprinklers were going off. I was surprised. We’ve had it drilled into us to conserve water and give grass as much to drink as possible, sprinklers should run at night or early in the morning. I learned that in California. Funny the things you notice.

Then it was off to downtown Tucson, which we had never seen. It’s actually a nice little city, but we didn’t spend much time; not much to do. We found a pub, had a beer and something to nosh. Then we wound our way back up toward the foothills. We had wanted to do some wine tasting while we were here, if at all possible, and we found a little place called CataVinos Wine Shop & Tasting Room, a lovely little store run by a woman named Yvonne and her dog, Cuvee, a chow/shepherd mix. Yvonne's originally from Detroit but went to school at the UofA, and moved here shortly thereafter. We talked to her about Arizona wines and she gave us some great information and hopefully some equally great recommendations. We bought four so we’ll find out when we get back to CA.

We didn’t expect to see Justin until tomorrow; he was supposed to be working tonight. But he sent us a text saying that if we were available, he’d love to join us for dinner. If. Of course! So he came up to the Westward Look and we took him out first to see our dirt since he’d never seen it before.

Our little parcel is located about as far North East as you can possibly get in Tucson. In fact, you can literally see the edge of the town, so sparse out where we are, with only a few houses populating the base of the hills. And we’re pretty much it to the north. We’re a little in the boonies, but as Justin said, in a really nice way. It’s not boonies where there’s absolutely nothing; it’s boonies where, within about 4 miles, there’s plenty.

As we drove east from the Westward Look, the skies were dark, ominous. Lightning once again split the sky, illuminating the clouds behind with each flash. A rainbow appeared. We were fairly certain that we’d find the end of the rainbow on our property and at the end would be a pot of gold. As we edged ever closer, the skies became darker, heavier. The winds began to swirl and the temperature spiked and then fell to 74º as the rains splashed against the windshield. We wound our way up the hill and sat in the car as the weather battered us. Night fell and we could see the lights of the city begin to light up the night.

Finally, the rain let up and we could show Justin what we had wanted him to see. A sea of cactus, a small graded patch of sandy dirt, and a new puddle in the driveway. We waited until the moon broke through and the distant sun in the west pulled the last of its light down into the horizon and then drove off to dinner, just the three Michels in a rental car, enjoying our conversation, enjoying our time together however brief. Enjoying the rain.

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live out loud

Sometimes you feel like a nut

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, August 23, 2011 10:50 PM

Sometimes you feel like a pistachio. Come to think of it, I don’t know that there’s ever a time when I don’t feel like a pistachio. Not actually LIKE a pistachio of course since I have no idea how it would feel to be a culinary nut. But I nearly always feel like eating a pistachio. I doubt that I’m alone.

Pistachios, whose official name is Pistacia vera of the Anacardiaceae family, are grown on trees and originally in places like Iran, India, Pakistan, Egypt, and Afghanistan. Maybe Sicily as well, though it’s primarily a desert plant. Pistachios have been consumed by humans since the Paleolithic age, maybe even as long ago as 2.6 million years. They’ve been around at least since about 10000 BC. Back in those days, people banded together to hunt the poor little tree-growing nut. Once said people became more civilized, it was introduced to Syria by Lucius Vitellius the Elder (no word about the Younger) and into Hispania, or the Iberian Peninsula, somewhere around 35 AD. Naturally the Romans took it for their own. In fact, they named it from the medieval Italian pistacchio from the classical Latin pistacium from the ancient Greet pistákion and pistákē from Middle Persia where it’s now known as pista. From there, its popularity grew. The British were hooked by 1400, and many centuries later it began growing in Australia, New Mexico, and finally in California, around 1854, where it’s commonly a garden tree.

Perhaps I should have a garden after all.

Kevin and I have gravitated to pistachios just lately. Oh, sure. We dabbled in the past. Every once in a while we’d buy a small bag and stand around the table, pulling them apart and eating them about as fast as we could. Then the bag, thankfully, would be done. Otherwise we’d have to eat more. Luckily, pistachios are actually good for us. They’ve been labeled as a good fat, they’re loaded with antioxidants and they help the heart because of their phytosterol, a plant derivative of cholesterol, but phytosterols are almost always at very low levels and are hard for the body to absorb. They may even block other cholesterols from being absorbed into the blood stream, which makes them good for the heart.

I knew I loved them for a reason.

And they’re good for the waist line; they’re pretty nutritious with their vitamin B6, copper and manganese. They may even sport a little potassium. All this from a little nut that grows on a tree in the backyard if you live in the right climate.

Of the roughly 33 different types of pistachio nuts available to buy, I tend to go for those roasted in the shell with a touch of salt. Not big on the ones that are dyed red; never understood the purpose other than for everyone on the planet to know what you’ve been doing just by looking at your fingers. There is also pistachio pudding, pistachio ice cream and gelato, pistachio jelly, cookies, cupcakes, brownies. There are even pistachio-crusted dishes for those who enjoy poultry or fish.

Here’s a little known and much debatable fact: pistachios are self-salting. Another: they were the cause of World War 1. Another: pistachios are the 5th most addictive substance on the planet. Unfortunately the media rarely covers pistachio overdoses, largely due to the pistachio lobby in Washington, D. C. There are also PAA, Pistachio Addicts Anonymous, groups around the country.

I may need to call. Hello, my name is Lorin ...

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In the heat of it

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, August 2, 2011 10:19 PM

I like the heat; I’m weird that way. I gravitated to the desert southwest even before I’d ever really spent any time here. I just knew, instinctively, that this was where I was supposed to be. I love the landscape, the flat sandscape of the Sonoran desert, the endless population of cactus, the palm trees leading the way to the ocean. The Pacific is deep blue and gray, ice cold but not as bleakly frigid as the Atlantic. It’s deeper but somehow more inviting. It sparkles under the near constant glare of the sun, light bouncing back toward the sky, a sky that is never ending. Sometimes the light from the sun colors it cornflower; other times it’s simply, majestically blue.

And the heat is exquisite. In the summertime especially the thermometer tops out over 100º and I’m in heaven. Our average temperature here in Oak Park in August is 96º, the low is 58º. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I like the heat so much. I know it will dissipate and dissipate quickly once the sun melts into the ocean. Today was 95º. As I write this, it’s already 71º and the sun has only been gone about an hour. By the time it rises again at 6:07 am, it will have dropped to about 60º. Therein lies the difference between the desert and other parts of the country. The heat rises in the east, boiling the air slowly and steadily, and it stays that way. Hot and humid. Here, we don’t have the humidity, just the daytime heat.

It’s so pleasant at night that we don’t use our air conditioning. Of course, we don’t use our AC during the day either. We have ceiling fans, and regular fans. Maguire even has a fan and lying on the cold tile floor keeps him plenty cool while he sleeps.

The desert is a different kind of heat. It’s suffocating but not oppressive. It sits down on you like the fattest human imaginable, pushing all of the air from your lungs, making your skin strain at the seams. You feel as if you’re on fire, the hairs on your arm singe; if you color your hair, it immediately goes brassy. And I love it. The sheer swelter of it, the mirage of it, the heat of it. Yet, what truly makes the desert such an amazing eco-structure is its beauty. It isn’t green, doesn’t have the towering pine trees of the east or the weeping willows of the mid-west, but it is haunting in its simplicity, in the ghosts it protects, the souls it continues to claim.

The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said “what makes a desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.” In his most famous work, The Little Prince, he writes about being stranded in the desert beside a crashed aircraft, a story that drew on his own experience of downing an airplane in the Sahara, something he detailed in his memoir Wind, Sand and Stars. He wrote of the desert’s heat, how it dares you to live even when it is trying its best to kill you, about the endless sky and the way it dissolves into the wind and melts into the sand; about how vast and beautiful and hot and begging for moisture it is. It hides things, the desert does, treasures that can change and revive lives. It changed mine.

Tomorrow it’s supposed to be 92º. Hot and dry. I can’t wait.

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