Paradise Burning

Monday was the day I’d promised myself the beach; last Thursday had brought the season’s first snow to Boston. But San Diego was still burning with fury. I stayed in for much of the morning, watching news of destruction in place names that I did not recognize. I imagined millions watching the same news, but hoping to hear that their aunt in Pomay was all right and that the Cedar fire wasn’t going to turn north into Ramona or south into San Diego itself.

If it had turned south, it would have aimed itself right at us, but there was too much city and not enough brush between me and it to make it a real danger. All the same, the fire had already leapt across two highways. More than 300,000 acres ended up burned by the triple fire. Around 1,200 homes were lost, about 20 lives.

I talked to people back home and mentioned The Fire. None of them had any idea. Our age is colored by the CNN effect — instant news! But instant communication isn’t all technology. Governor Davis here was calling in the military; Arizona and Nevada were sending firefighters flying down to us. However, New York had not yet noticed, and so no one else knew. My mother didn’t even call me in worry.

The Fire was palpable here, touched everything we did. The hotel handed out breathing masks. I grabbed one intending to use it as a souvenir. I stuffed it into my bag and remembered it only later when I had to walk to a store to pick up a replacement part for my computer, and labored breath and felt the burning. The mask didn’t do much good after I slipped it on, but it let me think I was doing something.

I felt like a voyeur, playing the audience at Natural Disaster. I only saw the thing on TV and maps and choking sky. I have no one in San Diego closer than friends of friends. I can only watch and not let myself be annoyed too much at the inconveniences, because I know whole towns are burning.

ashes and geeks

I went outside that morning into a land gone crazy; it choked and smelled of smoke, and I walked a good twenty feet before realizing that the dust layer on everything were ashes falling slowly from the sky. The sun was bright red, the sky was brown. You could easily make out sunspots with the naked eye. The air was full of acid burning when I breathed. It was supposed to be a sunny day, said the weather, but the earth itself had cancelled.

The news mentioned fires, so I went to the first conference tutorial and used the wireless to read more. The city of San Diego was surrounded with a ring of fire; three blazes to the north, east and south, that all burned in tandem and consumed dry brush and suburbs alike. Over the day, the smoke got worse and the ashes fell on roses and swimmming pools and restaurants and cars.

I sat down in an anonymous hotel meeting room to learn about some acronym happy technology. I was towards the back of the room. On my left sat a large jolly person, who spoke too loud and had anime backgrounds decorating his FreeBSD laptop. Hundreds of little doodads blinked on his screen, telling him weather, stocks, and CPU cycles. He asked questions in a loud voice and make jovial jokes about Microsoft.

On my right, there was an older gentleman, who instead muttered about Microsoft. He talked too quietly for anyone else to hear, intending his wisdom as a gift for only me I imagine. LDAP is nothing like DNS, apparently. Putting two services on a system is a high crime worthy of execution, and not simply a bad idea. There is no such thing as a good MTA. PAM is stupid. Macs aren’t good, they just suck less. I am always assured by those who enjoy their work.

I liked the guy on my left, not the guy on my right, but by the end of the day had no desire to speak to anyone like either of them. I had at home a friend trying to deal with his friend’s cancer. I teach students worried about parents and colleges and lovelives, people not much younger than me who have barely discovered the painful beautiful juice of life, which tastes faintly of blood. I read novels and overwrite poetry when I can; I teach and learn and want to see the beauty of a city here.

I took a break and checked my email, and started chatting online with Jared about college and Mike about his job and Shawn about his music and Rudy about his friends. I laughed out loud at the screen and sucked in breath at bad news. I look like any other geek spending an hour staring into his laptop, but none of them make noise. I break the etiquette of the laptop crowd. I’m reaching out to humanity, because I’m not here.

I am not superior to any of them. Brilliance visits here, people who can paint structures in code and who can design systems that will withstand time and pressure. Authors and speakers and teachers walk alongside traditional geeks, and the traditional geeks themselves, for all their cultural maligning, can burn brighter than them all. I, however, don’t quite fit. The gods of Harvard pay me to care about computers from 9-5 and I do so with diligence and whatever mental powers I can gather — but then I use both to pursue other ends. Systems don’t interest me such that I can pick them up and put down a novel, given a choice.

I sat in the chair listening to stories from three thousand miles away and heard in the corner a religious argument about text editors. I shrugged to myself and left. The open-air mall where I tried to get dinner closed; the restaurants were horribly short staffed as people checked their homes and relatives near the blazes. I ended up getting room service and waiting an hour and fifteen minutes, and gave the waiter a big tip.

Saturday: California the Sweet

California is sweet; something remembered as soon as I breathed its air. The air was misty blue once I landed; the view from the plain was less appealing: pockets of natural paradise drenched in a city plopped into the dust. The west can’t conceal the manmade scars as well; their trees don’t billow and forgive like New England’s, and the smaller growth isn’t as lush and embracing, covering our mistakes. So poor buildings and rich ones tend to grab the attention.

California is sweet and for a day or a week or a month it is intoxicating and paradise, but I’m already glad it will end after a week; sweet things in too much quantity grow sickening and uncomfortable, too precious not to experience in life but too rarefied and purposeful to be life itself.

But what I didn’t know was the sweetness was temporary. As I sat to dinner that night and happily watched the Yankees lose the World Series to Josh Beckett’s stifling arm, a signal fire was set in the countryside’s hills by a lone hunter who was dehydrated, disorientated, and very grateful that he had been rescued before dying alone in the wilderness brush.

It had not rained in San Diego in over 100 days.

Cold Night in June

for j.j.b.

I cry, sometimes —
they ask — frown the wrong question.

tear drops out, wanders
warm touch down the cheek
leaving itself behind
cold trail.

ah the touch, the illusion — someone else?
not there, but was.

Reminder brings another.

I only try then,
rare touch, the wander —
moving, part of me.
the airflow, fan in my window
moving tiny hairs on my leg.

I will never go – never go.
There will not be another.

Warm housewood in Maine smelled
of sawdust grown green.
Warm in Boston also, holding
rainpatter, feet never warming
moving too always for it.

It shakes beneath.
The world is going to change again.

that fan noise
drowns the street pulse

evening evening
red light – red light – red light
minutes tapping the dash
rain on the roof
a mile in twenty minutes —

once the canopy sighed there
city distant, pearlstring on horizon —

distant —

people laugh more than they mean, you know?
laugh in joy, yes
but break the compact
and laugh for sadness and for dark
laugh to cry less
robbing the crying

in smaller days, there were clouds —
the big kids could push
scraped knees glowed in sunset
New England thunderstorms, only things on time,
smelled of cheap charcoal barbecue,
warm pondwater, that was was when —

I told them, the trust, of fears and worries
small trials for a small person
laughter for the big — so laugh! —
where I can hear them.

They will not laugh again, I said.
They will not laugh again, so.

backrubs a twin gift,
the knots unfold under the fingers
each opens, loosens
and feel the mirror of fingertips
language on the spine
better than words, effect instant, shocked, prime —


left with the creaks in a quiet apartment
still smelling of paint
books in boxes — more often packed than shelved.

I reached all week for alone
stole seconds in corners
took longer showers —

now true alone
nothing just a hop away
no echoes. the tear again, false touch,
no glimpsed eyeshine here
no peace without backdrop —

“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue.”

Morning comes to offices even
without windows.
Hum of server fans,
seven hours daily, so long!
small in heart
or else my heart grows small…

no way to tell.

I collect eyes.
Grey ones shone with Jupiter in them once,
Blue caught Nantucket sun and water —
Black had me hugging streetlamps and tracing wet grass.
Stone gemmed blues whispered secrets of dead kings,
Hazels for the winter without snow —
And now warm brown,
quick and familiar with little time, so young,

All my eyes. So few.

And most are not.
I don’t recall their color
I’m afraid to show them mine —
the laughter —

and now my eyes scattered
train whispers between cities
rattled, rattled rattled —
words on a screen,
far wisdom or nearby warmth
no choice at all.

those eyes are mine,
but I cannot keep them near.

mirror mirror,
on the floor,
who will win
this tired war?

tomorrow it will rain again
like today.

my bed is cold, eyes unfocused,
the day for so long quiet
filled with danced backrubs and words,
so few eyes,
touch unreal of tears and wind,
and then, no more, not even eyes —

the cold alone night.

tomorrow cold night will come,
like today.

the milkpool warden

for t.a.b.

He came, the milkpool warden
brushing snow off shoulders,
black eyes to cut water
fingertips speaking
in warm runes on my forearm.

He danced in my closed eyes
I saw kingdoms, firelit gemstones,
songs in his low words,
the prince of all wonder
I heard his secrets —

He left at moonset, unspoken,
the music fell, spent fireworks.
I ran, trail faded, trees pressed in.
I bled, to see, to hear — push just once —
nothing followed him.

Years, dark, by the milkpool,
tracing runes with my fingers,
I hummed, the water sparkled,
songs flowered, trees grew shadows,
I found him alone.