Tag Archives: Los Angeles

In the Shadow of Catastrophe

One of the reasons the water industry is so interesting is that it deals with fundamental questions of human nature.

I know, I know, that’s not Heidegger out there reading your meter or fixing the leak in your street or turning a valve or fitting a pipe. Though, if it’s an August afternoon when the sun’s so bloody hot it’s softening the asphalt, he may well be wondering just what exactly he’s doing with his life. He is, however, ensuring that at least for the time being you don’t have to worry your own pretty little head about any Sartrian questions, either. For there’s nothing else in our cushy American lives that can cause us to confront our sense of civilization more effectively, nothing that shifts from a mundane fact of life to a visceral, animal need so quickly as water.

Or, more precisely, its absence when you turn the tap on and nothing comes out.

Just how rarely that happens in the US is a testament to how well those meter-readers and leak-fixers and valve-turners and pipe-fixers do their jobs (and how well those of us inside our cubicles and offices do ours, if I may be so bold).

But ultimately, it’s mostly due to a great streak of luck.

DeltaImageThis is the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta east of San Francisco, home to California’s State Water Project, the largest publicly built water and power production/conveyance system in the States. Snow falls in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and runs off into the Delta, where, instead of flowing out to the Pacific via the San Francisco Bay, it’s diverted and pumped into the California Aqueduct, in which it flows 300-500 miles south to come out of faucets in Los Angeles, Riverside, Imperial and San Diego Counties.

It’s like Londoners turning on the tap and getting water from the Pyrenees.

aqueduct2Which is only slightly less impressive than the Roman aqueducts of yore.

25 million+ people drink State Water Project – SWP – water, and god only knows how many acres of citrus, avocados, strawberries, kale, cauliflower, celery, flowers, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera are watered with it.

Ventura, where I grew up, has been around a pretty long time, at least by West Coast standards, and has always subsisted off of the local rivers and the groundwater aquifers under the coastal plains. It still does, importing zero water from the SWP. The last person to try bringing western Ventura County water from LA was William Mulholland, long before the SWP. (It didn’t work out so well.) The rest of the county east of the City of Ventura, however, does not, and would still be little more than a few small dusty stops along a much-more-often-used railroad. Construction on the SWP started in the late 1950s, got a huge chunk of money in 1960, and was completed within a decade. The cities of Thousand Oaks, Camarillo, Simi Valley and Moorpark in eastern Ventura County were incorporated 1964, ’64, ’69, and ’83, respectively. Simi had only 10,000 residents when it incorporated; today it’s home to nearly 125,000 souls (read: vacuous corporeal forms).

Imported water brought these cities into the world, and imported water would take them out.

Or the lack of it would. But before I get to any fundamental human questions about what we’re willing to do to ensure our continued existence, let me widen our spacetime lens a little more to explain why imported water would ever disappear in the first place.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is about 1,100 square miles and once had more than 500,000 acres of marshland. Since about, oh, 2300 BCE, it was home to about 15,000 people. The Spaniards and then the “Mexicans” moved in and raised those numbers a bit, but it wasn’t until the mid 19th century, when whatever failed 49ers didn’t die of malaria or dysentery realized the agricultural potential of the Delta, that the friendly neighborhood-minded white folk started streaming in and really kicked up the census numbers. Their idea, in good Anglo-Saxon fashion, was to maximize the shit outta the Delta’s potential, at whatever cost to those already there, and by whatever hook or crook they could find.

They started with by draining the Delta and building levees.

Pic: Edward Burtynsky, National Geographicfrom The Boston Globe

Levees, rivers, farms in the Delta.Pic: Edward Burtynsky, National Geographic
from The Boston Globe

For decades and decades the place expanded and people diverted more and more water around not only the famous paddies of California Long-Grain Rice, but also fields of corn, various grains, sugar beets, tomatoes, asparagus, etcetera – all by taking dirt, stones, wood, glass, concrete, sand, metal scrap, wagons, tractors, eventually cars, whatever, any and all agricultural, residential and industrial waste/material that was at hand and chucking it into a foundation and covering it with dirt and sometimes cementing and graveling the whole thing over. As all this crap rots and corrodes and does or does not settle, it leaves pockets in the levees, which is less than good for their structural integrity, leading many people to interpret reports by the Army Corps of Engineers to mean that portions of the Sac-SanJoaq Delta are worse off than Nawlins levees were pre-Katrina.

Which means, a little tremor here, a little tremor there, and kapow see ya later Delta system.

The fact that this hasn’t happened yet is what I meant about luck.

Because we all know The Big One’s coming, right? It’s certainly what every Californian says in response to every other act of god or nature anywhere else on the newsworthy planet.

“Man, d’you hear about Boulder?”

“The flooding? Yeah. Gnarly, right?”

“Really is. But, I mean, we’re due, man. We’re totally due.”

“For sure.”

But really, chances are pretty good that a quake is coming. So good that it’s a When formulation, not an If. The only if is whether it’s in the right place, or even the right general area, and it it’s the right strength. Because if it is, the Delta will fail, and parts of Southern California will. be. out. of. water.

And not just for, like, a couple hours till that guy with the blue collar comes and works and sweats in your street (and three of his buddies – er, “coworkers” – stand around watching) until things are fixed.

And there’s no real safeguard against that almost inevitable eventuality.

Yet. (we’re getting there)

drought1_3821Water wholesalers in eastern Ventura County, and most of the Greater LA Area, including parts of the OC and the Inland Empire, have decent amounts of storage, enough for about 6-9 months depending on usage and weather. But anything serious enough to take out the Delta for that long is going to take a lot longer than that to fix. Beyond that, LA and areas south and east of the city have or can get Colorado River water, meaning they’ll continue to at least be able to drink and eat and feed their pets and wash their children. Eastern Ventura County has no other source. None. There is no physical connection to the system that drains the Colorado River. The City of Ventura and Ojai aren’t going to send over any of their water – they have their own mouths and hippies and horses to keep hydrated and hygienic. And there isn’t much more than a couple months’s worth of even seriously reduced demand in our groundwater basins to support the entire area. And as of now, there aren’t any ocean desalination projects even being conceived around here (except right here, not At but inside the Wellhead, if you know what I mean). And, as an added benefit, all the farming that’s taken place over the years and all the groundwater pumping has led to such serious land subsidence that a lot of the Delta floor is 20, 25, even 30 feet below the tops of the levees, which happen to be right around sea level. Meaning if the ocean somehow backs up far enough past the Carquinez Strait and tips over into that low-lying Delta, it’ll set up a siphon like God’s own firehouse and turn those 1,100 square miles into the Great Salt Lake West.

And then sayonara basically everything. For years.

This isn’t fear-mongering or sensationalism. Ask anyone in the water industry about the Delta, and after seventeen or eighteen seconds of hemming and hawing, they’ll say, “Well, yeah, I mean, it’s basically fucked.”

Ask them what’s being done to prepare for it, and you’ll get a heavy sigh and a look that says, “Bro, we are so not on the clock right now, and I don’t want to think about work for the amount of time it’ll take to explain it to you.”

So I’m gonna save them the trouble – next week, when I get into that. I figure this is enough to digest for now, and a decent place to stop. The Fundamental Questions About Human Nature will also come next week, because they’re part of the solution. Or rather, the barrier to one being devised.

Till then, be well. And if you’re in SoCal, enjoy your shower – it may be the last one you take for a long, long time…

jk.

not really.

Go to Part II.

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On Creativity

Earlier this week, I was honored to be featured on TreeHouse, An Exhibition of the Arts, a web site put together by my friends Erin Whittinghill and Natasha Ganes.

TreeHouseLogoSquare

Click on the logo or right here to read it on their site, or to just check the site out in general, which you should, because it’s awesome.

Or you can stay here, because I’m I’m also re-posting my TreeHouse guest post here, for my email subscribers and so it can filter down into the aquifer/archive. And cuz I’ve been busy and don’t have a new post. And you know, so you don’t miss it.

~

On Creativity

We’re driving through Hollywood when a friend asks me,

“Where do you get your ideas for stories?”

pic from Goodbye Melbourne, Hello New York

pic from Nat Ma’s rad photo blog, Goodbye Melbourne, Hello New York

His phone rings before I can answer, and while he talks, I look around. We’re headed home from a vintage LA evening: sunset dinner atop a Venice hotel, an improv variety show at the Fringe Festival, a nightcap at a French Quarter-looking joint, a dip in the Roosevelt Hotel pool. It’s past midnight and Hollywood Blvd is packed with cars. The line for the Supper Club stretches halfway down the block and it’s packed, too, with bare-backed broads shivering atop their stilettos and fat men in skinny jeans oohing and ogling. Creeping up La Brea to Franklin, I slalom concertgoers wheeling coolers down the middle of the street as they spill out of the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Bowl, laughin and carryin on. A homeless man argues with the parking attendant in front of the Magic Castle. When we finally get to the 101, three cars are backing up the onramp. A shirtless man is standing on the railing of the Pilgrimage Bridge.

Finally, my friend hangs up. “So, about those story ideas,” he says, and I tell him I had about twenty while he was on the phone.

MrMiyagiThis is hardly unique – even to writers, let alone to just me. I think we all make assumptions all day long about where people come from and how we’d act in situations we come across. An image presents itself, and a backstory unfurls behind it. Most of us just immediately let them go. Most of the time, I do. But every once in a while, I pluck an image-packet out of the ether as it whizzes by, like Mr. Miyagi with his chopsticks, and write it down.

If I let it ferment for a while, the general framework takes care of itself and I can write it all out like I’m transcribing something I know. This part – the setup – is sheer fun. And it gets me writing, which is the only way I know how to come up with the rest of the story. What it’s really about. Because a story’s not really about what happens where. (Except it kind of is.)

In the stories I like to read, and the ones I try to write, there’s some ineffable something else in addition to plot and theme and setting and character – not a moral or a point or any kind of distillate you can separate out from the other elements and say this is what this story’s about, but something that, well, gets at the heart of things.

I rarely know what that ineffable something is before I write it. Or, discover it by writing, I should say. Even if the image I first glimpsed is the resolution, by the time the story’s done, it doesn’t carry the weight or meaning I initially thought it would.

Only once has a story come roaring out fully formed. For several years, I thought it was brilliant, and I tried to duplicate that process of starting with the “conclusion,” of describing the whole jigsaw puzzle just as it first appeared, of manufacturing impact. But I never had that experience again, and what’s more, I can finally see that actually, that story is predictable, pedantic, unimaginative, and cliché.

Technically speaking, all impact is manufactured. But ineffable somethings feel less conscious than that. They feel stumbled upon or written into. Uncovered, if I may.

Crushed-Stella-Artois-can-001By way of example: I heard a story on NPR last fall about a handful of people who were going to jail for a very long time for defrauding the State of California by redeeming recycling deposits on cans and bottles they collected out of state. It was irresistible, but I had to carry it around for eight months before I could figure out how to use it. Because a story about the fraud ring would be journalism, and that’d already been done. (Besides, I couldn’t be bothered with all those…facts.)

One day, I saw this great big woman in a pink sweat suit standing at a crosswalk, lighting a cigarette. On the opposite corner was a skinny priest in short sleeves, an older guy with a pretty hip haircut (this is LA, after all), polishing his Ray Bans. Looking back and forth between them, I knew I had a way in.

But still – the cans, these characters, this one strange moment…it was enough to get going, but it wasn’t anything to hang an ineffable something’s hat on. Things went here, things went there, and before I knew it, I was up to 25,000 words. I thought for a moment I’d turn it into a novella, but the vast majority of it was superfluous to the real turning point of the story – which only emerged around word 23,000, as an insight into one of the first paragraphs I wrote. Now, at 8,000 words, the fraud ring’s incidental to the main action of the story, but it’s also intrinsic to the main thrust. I couldn’t simply swap it out for cocaine runners or hedge fund managers or used car salesmen. That’s the thing with ineffable somethings – they transcend the story, but couldn’t exist without it.

Whatever ineffable somethings are made of, I’d never have any of them if I didn’t go through the process of building a story up and then whittling it down, saying, this tangled mess is where I think the story is, and then paring things away to find the kernel.

SprucesMatsAlmlof

Photo: Mats Almlöf for National Geographic 2010 photo contest

And that paring away is where the creativity required by writing overlaps with the creativity required by life; discovering what makes a story tick is the same process of discovering what makes me tick. They’re both about removing obstacles to get at something I don’t understand but that I know is right. That ineffable something near the center of things, in life as in fiction, is always already there, waiting to be brought out into the open. There’s always a thrill when I discover it, sometimes even surprise, but it’s the shock of recognizing something that was there all along.

Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit,” and a lot of the “shit” I have to revise out of drafts isn’t just superfluities of my own devising, but also – and more importantly – attempts to sound like someone else. It’s only when I can manage to get past my ideas of what kind of writer I want to be, when I can stop trying to manufacture impact by imitating Papa or O’Connor or Bukowski or Gogol or Winton or Porter, and just try to write sentences that sound true, that the ineffable somethings happen.

PrichardInfluencesThat Papaism applies to life, too, for – at the risk of sounding trite – life itself is a process of constant revision. I certainly didn’t come out polished and blemish-free, as those who’ve had to put up with me know only too well, and all these conceptions and notions I have about myself constantly prove to be only flimsy veneers over…something else. If I try to manage my personality or “craft my image,” I come across as inauthentic, feel horrible about it, and act accordingly (that is, hostile). And then that interpersonal magic that we live for – that real-life ineffable something – becomes an impossibility.

There’s a music inside each of us that’s often drowned out by the cacophony of bullshit muzak we’re sold as models of what our real lives should be.

For me, that muzak-model is a Jack London Jack Kerouac Johnny Cash Tim Armstrong fuck-you aesthetic, mixed with a David Foster Wallace David Rakoff Christopher Hitchens edgy intellectualism, and topped off with a Tom Robbins Tom McGuane irreverent joviality.

Seriously, that’s who I think I should be.

To combat this self-propelled onslaught of ludicrous and impossibly-attainable images, I rededicate myself every day to trying to lead a life, on and off the page, that’s a process of picking out the strains that ring true and leaving behind the rest. You want a Bukowski story? I can write you a Bukowski story, believe me. Hell, I can write you a Bukowski story by three o’clock this afternoon. But I’m not Bukowski, so it’d be bullshit.

You want a Prichard story, well, that might take a little while. I gotta find it first.

strataSince we’re getting close to the end, let me try to sum up: creativity is about paring away the layers upon layers of superficial nonsense we pile on over the years, discovering what you-and-you-alone harbor in the hidden recesses where your undiluted magic resides, and making do with what is found there.

It’s creative because it’s new, it’s original and unique, and you’re exposing it to these old-old things – language, pictures, drums, design, whatever your thing is – and throwing that mass up against the newness and nowness of culture and society.

It’s scary, because we’re taught to look elsewhere for meaning and value and worth, that what’s inside is bland at best and probably corrosive.

It’ll cost you – a little torture, probably, maybe some vertigo – to go rooting around in your depths.

But I promise you, the trip down is worth the cost.

It’s exactly as rewarding as you can possibly imagine.

~

Where do you get your creativity from?

What things stand in your way?

How do you get over/past/through them?

OasisNatGeo

Photo: Nam In Geun for National Geographic 2010 photo contest

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