birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

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The concrete jungle, the quiet desert, the river of cars

A Very Traditional Desert

The desert up where I live isn't what most people picture when they think of a desert: There are no sand dunes, no vultures circling overhead, and not a whisper of what you may think of as an oasis.

Had I looked to see what today's assignment would be, I would have been able to write a more dramatic entry, but by ten o'clock in the morning, not even mad dogs or Englishmen are out and about. My own two dogs, naturally, accompanied me outside when I went to have a look around, but that's because they're neurotically worried that they'll miss something exciting if they're not with me. Maybe someday they'll learn just how boring I am.

This part of the desert, up near Joshua Tree National Park, is what I like to think of as the part of California everyone speeds through to get where they're going, to someplace interesting. It's geologically a basin, a relatively flat area between a few mountain ranges, and about 3,000 feet in elevation. Not all that high, not enough to cause anyone shortness of breath, but high enough to have about 10% less atmosphere. This means brighter stars at night, and deeper blues during the day.

As usual, there are no clouds overhead and only a scattered handful of small ones along the horizon. A relentless sun shines brightly and even at this early hour, is hot on naked flesh and makes the desert too warm for most activity. Even for the creatures that somehow manage to live up here.

By this time of day, the one or two songbirds that greet the new day are silent and no ravens are circling overhead or searching for food. Sometimes hawks are out searching for prey, but today the skies are as empty as the desert floor.

Even ants know better than to be out foraging at this time of day. I was able to see one bee, a tiny, slight thing, but there was nothing hunting for it. No lizards, either, while I was out looking around, nor snakes or scorpions or beetles or bugs or anything. They'll be out, if at all, later in the day, around the evening when it's possible for cold and warm blooded animals to be comfortable.

There was a desert iguana, a thick little fellow about the size of my open hand, hiding in the eaves who scurried away along the west side of the cabin and disappeared somewhere, but that and the bee were all the animals I could see.

Some cars driving by on the paved street in front of the cabin, mostly pickup trucks and SUVs, would interrupt the stillness of the desert when they drove by, and such is the desert that the sound of their tires on the road can be heard at least a mile away. Other than that, nothing, and like listening to a sea shell, all I can usually hear is the sound of blood coursing through my eardrums.

While my neighbor across the street has filled his front yard with a large variety of non-native trees, I've decided (through laziness?) that on my property all that is here are the plants that nature has decided to let live up here. Yes, I do have a Joshua Tree on my property (two, in fact. I call them the twins since it looks like both of them are coming from a single root, now about as tall as I am and in the shape of a V), which not everyone can say, and an example or two of the other plants that can survive the harsh desert days and freezing winters, but mostly as far as larger things go, it's creosote bushes.

They were new to me when I moved up here, and in spite of my efforts to give a sister one, they don't seem to transplant. They have lots of tiny, little leaves. and one of them whose roots created a circle of plants was, until a few years ago when other things were discovered, considered the world's oldest living thing at over 10,000 years. Now I think it's number three and King Clone is about twenty miles away.

I love the quiet up here, and I remember daily something my realtor said while she was showing me some properties. She spent part of her life in Redondo Beach, south of Los Angeles Internation Airport, and said a lot of old beach people live up here. I couldn't understand it at first, having spent several years living in Playa del Rey, but now I do. Something about looking out over the desert puts me in the same frame of mind as sitting on the beach, watching the waves. To put a word to it, I'd call it expansive, in part because nothing made by humans interrupts the view.

The desert, as we now say, is what it is.



My Peaceful Little Neighborhood

I live in a place you aren’t supposed to live. Downtown LA has only been a dense residential community for about 15 years, and the systems for scheduling permits for events and film shoots and construction hasn’t quite caught up.

In 2015, my neighbors and I were kept awake for a full week by two circling helicopters over the building that were shooting the finale of Fast and Furious 7. Film LA had okayed the shoot, because they were unaware that we were a residential building. As an apology, the producers rented out the top floor of Perch—the posh French restaurant that has the best open-air view of Downtown—for a party for us at the end of the week.

Walking out of my building Saturday morning, I was met with an unusually chaotic barrage of noises: car horns, people filling the streets, a cadre of police and traffic enforcement officers standing around, construction workers, and four large cement trucks parked on my street, which had been closed to traffic.

My building is adjacent to one of Downtown’s larger construction projects, what will be known as Park Fifth at the corner of Fifth and Olive St, a retail, hotel, condo, apartment complex, that is just finishing the big pour for its foundation, it looks like.

Directly adjacent to that is Pershing Square—LA’s answer to San Francisco’s Union Square or New York’s Washington Square Park. Except for the fact that Pershing Square was redesigned in the early 1990s and the green grass and idyllic fountain were replaced with an underground parking garage, covered in a multi-colored concrete maze, insulated from the street and filled with odd concrete sculptural features in fading shades of red, yellow, brown, and orange. Its 90s aesthetic has been described as “Kim Jung-Il meets Don Johnson.”

Anyway, there was a huge festival being held in the park Saturday that had caused them to close the streets east and west of the Square to make room for food trucks and to add square-footage, as the park itself has been made cramped with very few open spaces—especially if you add a stage in the center of it.

The Park Fifth project had also requested to close the streets on the north side of the Square and the back side of my building as it was a day-long cement pour to complete the foundation. What resulted was what can only be described as chaos.

Cars backed up for blocks in each direction. Festival patrons already day-drunk—many of them in purple, blue, and green full-body paint. Police officers baking in 90-degree heat, breathing in car fumes. And the entrance/exit to my building open only partially, and requiring me to sit in about 10-20 minutes of traffic to even get a block away from home, if I had needed to drive anywhere. Fortunately, I didn’t have anywhere to go that the Red Line couldn’t take me, so I got to spend the day walking in and out and around the chaos.

Seeing Uber drivers scream in frustration at Parking Enforcement Officers redirecting them onto crowded streets. Watching the hoards of festival-goers pass by my doorway into and then out of whatever concert/festival/event was going on in the square. Somehow, I never seem to know about these things.

I don’t know if living Downtown has inured me to this chaos or maybe I’m just a city-person in general, but there’s something soothing about being at the center of the chaos, but shielded, unaffected by it.

And as I write this on Sunday morning, the construction workers have the day off, Pershing Square has been returned to its normal denizens of vagrants and dog-walkers, and the streets are, as always, cleared of all the detritus by our heroic late-night street sweepers. All evidence of yesterday’s clustercuss now gone.



Addicted to Biking

Traveling by bicycle in LA is addictive. Within a five-mile radius of my place, I go anywhere in about the same time as it takes to drive. Once there, no parking hassles or fees, ever.

Today I am heading to stadium spin class, which I do several times a week. I bike to a bicycle workout to warm up, but also because I like going places on my bike. I love zipping along outdoors, rolling through the stop signs and gearing up and down to maintain pace. Sometimes I think I should get a trick bike and jump curbs and take other shortcuts. Lots of cyclists are daredevils but I don’t take chances. I play it mostly straight, trying to observe the rules of the road. My favorite position is no hands.

The day is warm and breezy, not sweaty hot, so just right for the bike. Sometimes I leave early so if I’m meeting someone for lunch, I have time to cool down. For spin class, the whole point is sweating so no need to leave early.

There is so much to see from a bike in my neighborhood, I have to work to avoid getting distracted. I don’t want to miss that parked car door opening right in front of me, or get wiped out by a truck. But, I can’t help watching a woman walking two dogs dressed up in bright clothing. She is talking to the dogs like they are children. There is so much to see on every ride, including other riders flashing slight hand sign hellos.

And no need to worry about gas. I am the power.



East does not replicate west

Over the last couple of years, I have driven down to Washington DC with what is becoming relative frequency. My oldest son will start classes tomorrow. There have been visits, re-visits, re-revisits, orientation and now move-in. The Westerners around me understand the drive. 6 hours, when you live in LA, might be the commute home on a bad day. Or it is the weekender drive from USC to watch us play Cal or Stanford.

Today, the proposed 6 hours between DC and home became 8.

It was the last Sunday of summer. The Jersey Turnpike, I-95, the whole corridor, is filled with people trying to get back home from a wonderful weekend on the shore. The entire Atlantic seaboard needs to move inland on a Sunday. Today was no exception.

Unlike Los Angeles traffic, where drivers are quite likely to lose their shit and start shooting at others, Atlantic traffic seems more patient. No one is honking. No one is yelling. Merging is as civilized as I believe it gets. People drive along with their windows down, as if they were sitting out on their porch enjoying the day.

In LA, if drivers are communicating with other drivers, it is of the yelling, swearing type. Drivers back east seem to keep to themselves more, with an unspoke ballet of merges, on ramps and off ramps as part of the setting.

Today, most of the license plates are from a state other than the one I am driving in, and people appear to be relaxed. Enjoying the ride, even if we are going only 3 miles per hour.

I would never have imagined the east coast to be a place to find civility on the Nation's highways, but then little we do here surprises me anymore.



Southern California has been fecund this year. The overabundant winter rains -- coming after four years of drought-- brought everything back to life. The plants, yes, but even the soil itself, which is teeming with worms and grubs and ants.

Especially the ants. They have been marching fearlessly all over my house looking for an entry. Overnight they found one: through the living room window.

The window is high up, and a new window that would probably have kept the out if closed tight. But the weather has been perfect for the last week -- 80s during the day, 60s at night -- and so why wouldn't you sleep with the windows open?

The trail was hilariously straight, down from the window pane to the corner of the couch, then to the floor. Then meandering around my flip-flops, around the stools at the breakfast counter, and over to the spot of all joy: the cat food bowls. The swarm of ants around the bowl with soft food in it was completely disproportionate to the neat two-by-two-ant highways leading up to it. It was like a simply country highways dead ended into a massive ant quarry.

The cats jumped over the line of ants like it was an electric fence.

In a crunch -- and that's what this was -- Windex will kill ants right quick. It's not really what you want to use on your wood floors, but a crisis is a crisis. But I didn't want to windex the paint on the walls. So I resorted to the vacuum, and sucked up ants by the scores. But they didn't stop coming. The word wasn't getting back to the mothership that this gravy train had dried up.

It was time for the big guns: the can of insect killer that I reserve for termites. It's lost its label, but the lid is green. I step outside, work my way down the staircase along the side of the house, and find the trail, coming down the wall -- oddly skipping right past the open window of the downstair tenants -- and crossing the sidewalk before disappearing into a concrete block wall between my house and my neighbor's. I sprayed from the green-topped can, and the ants all stopped.

I felt bad that the slaughter of even insects had to be the first part of my day, that I went out into the world first thing and started killing. But sometimes that's just how a morning goes.



Babies, burnout and boxes

Time to breathe, feed the cat, download the internet, get a news fix