On this day one year ago, thinking myself very resourceful, I felled the massive, perpetually dying elm tree in my front yard. It took weeks to break the rounds into free firewood, garden plinths, and green bin waste.    Then it was gone.

What to do with the newly created void in the yard?   Eager for more punishment, I thought: why not move the grapefruit tree there?  It’s too close to the house already and will triangulate spatially with the tangerine by the sidewalk and the lime by the driveway.  Our yard would have the stamp of design upon it, which it never has.    Chez UpintheValley is forever improv, paid for with donkey toil, followed by second thoughts.

So I dug up the grapefruit tree.  I cut the root ball down to the size of a large ottoman and rolled the whole thing across the yard, into a waiting hole.

Boy, was it ever unhappy. It shed leaves like the deathly sprig in Waiting for Godot. I told myself, give it a few months and it will put out fresh shoots. It knows I moved it for a reason.

The summer went by, no shoots. I nipped the branches, seeking proof of life.   It wasn’t dead. But that’s all I could say for it. Fall passed, then winter. Nothing. Not a solitary green leaf.  I watered it slavishly. I squatted in its arthritic shadow as confounded as Vladimir and Estragon.

How is it possible greenery can pop from asphalt in triple-digit heat,  without a drop of moisture? How can Tapia palms erupt from weep holes in the sidewalk and refuse to be eradicated, while my grapefruit tree failed to thrive under my care and feeding?

Clearly, that spot in the yard bore a curse. Nothing could thrive there. In a fit of whiny pique, I decided to kill the tree.  To teach nature a lesson, and to break the curse, I would offer a ritual sacrifice.

Then the rains came, forestalling my plans.  A few warm days and this happened. Hundreds of flowers. Hundreds…each putting forth a bulb of grapefruit.

In my impatience, I assumed the branches would emerge first, and from the branches the flowering of new fruit. But it’s the other way around. Moving the tree made me feel like I was running things, which I wasn’t.  I’m just the gardener.  Spring makes cosmic insignificance sort of delightful.

Have You Read the Book of Mormon?

Sister Pincock, from North Carolina. Sister Madsen, from New Mexico.  Proselytizing on Rayen St.

They were so nice and so far from home it was all I could do not to invite them over for dinner. I had to tell at least two white lies to make my escape.

Lying to Mormon girls! Behold the perfidy of Mr. UpintheValley.

Heedless, In A Mirror Blackly

Jaywalking, Manhattan-style, the 1970s. Transgressions against civic order this small were leavened by the five murders a day the NYPD had on its hands in those years. In midtown, even the well-dressed joined the scofflaws.

The phrase “jaywalker” doesn’t begin to describe the suicidally aggressive people ubiquitous in the streets of downtown LA at night in 2018.

They lollygag across thoroughfares with their back to oncoming traffic. They lurk between lanes in the unlit portion of the block, clad in dark clothing head to toe, arguing with ghosts. Dark shapes shamble through dark backgrounds, towing crazy, shadow dancing in headlights, drug sweaty, angling for insurance payouts.

My biggest fear as an Uber driver has never been robbery. It’s clipping one of these guys and spending the next year fighting in court. They’re a menace and the City has granted them dominion. It no longer issues tickets on Skid Row as the recipients would never pay them. Unpaid tickets add up to bench warrants. Bench warrants require jail time. And jail is the states most valuable commodity. It won’t part with a bunk for less than a felony. Besides, the whole business of citing unsafe behavior is now racist and classist. We can’t have that. Our feral metropolis is Woke.

Into this heedless breach approaches our near future of headless Ubers. The case for Autonomous Vehicles is offered as a fait accompli, first as freight, soon as rideshare. Ecce technocratic determinism!

Progress™ suffered its first casualty this week in Tempe, Arizona. The victim, a homeless woman pushing a bike laden with plastic bags across a boulevard at night. The car had a human backup driver ready to seize the wheel in just such an eventuality, but she was otherwise occupied. It was a well-lit suburban arterial with no traffic. The victim managed to find the shadowiest spot from which to emerge, then proceed heedlessly into the path of an oncoming Volvo going 40mph.

And so we have reached the Black Mirror inflection point.

1) Let us tell it like it is: the Safety Operator is merely a psychological prophylactic. Human backups won’t hit the brakes in a pinch any faster than the autonomous functions will. Their role is theatrical; to look purposeful and not text behind the wheel. Whoops.

2) the Futurists can site the slow/non reaction of the backup driver as confirmation of the supremacy of AV technology. Human negligence kills 30,000 people a year, sayeth the mantra. Refusal to adopt transformative change is unsound reasoning. Luddite.

3) the beta-testing cities are now playing the role teaching hospitals do in the medical profession: patients/riders as guinea pigs. To paraphrase Atul Gawande, without teaching hospitals there cannot be doctors, including himself. Would he allow his own children to be treated at one? Never.

4) In 2015, Arizona declared itself a regulatory haven in order to attract testing operations from self-driving car companies. Other states will follow suit, competing for the business.

You can see where this is going. Robotics will force moral dilemmas we are hard-pressed to answer individually, which renders them all the easier to ignore collectively. The auto fatality rate will become our moral calculus. As long as it ticks down each year, the “robotics is preferable to people” ethos will prevail.

Which means self-driving Ubers are headed for the Serengeti of Skid Row Los Angeles and an inevitable paso doble with its peripatetic residents. If you were looking for a natural laboratory for perfecting the kinks in the autonomous backup braking systems you couldn’t do better.

As a driver I’m not sure who to root for.

Last Lobster at 99 Ranch

What is it like to be last crustacean in the tank on Sunday night?  Do you roll on your back, pincers tied, to feign death,  or has death already spared you, the redheaded stepchild of the batch, from the agony of the steam pot?

To prowl the fish market on an empty stomach is know the brutal beauty at the top of food chain, and enjoy it.  No scuttling beneath silent seas for me. I am Neptune and I get to pick my dinner tonight.

The 99 Ranch clientele skews heavily toward buyers of whole fish. They generally ignore the filet and chops under the glass.

This woman explained her criteria as she plucked through the pile, filling her pail.  One, you don’t want cloudy eyes on the fish.  Two, the scales shouldn’t flake when you scratch it with the tongs.

Three, the gills should be slightly bloody. I pried the operculum back to discover the entire oxygen transfer apparatus underneath.  The filament had a slightly greyish cast, but the concavity around it was pink. She shrugged, implying I could do better.

What a fantastic organ was this dense mustache of capillaries, one of Natures more clever miracles. To run my thumb across the lamellae was to touch the Pleistocene era and wish for a cleaver in the same breath.

I did the middle-class thing and bought a pre-packaged salmon filet and thought myself slightly noble for not reaching for the lobster.

This Is Us

We can have big piles of Tater Tot-Chos, atop piles of ground beef, atop baked potatoes, drizzled with cheese and sour cream.   We can eat our food with pitchforks.   Dig in!

Lotsa weed, too.  Now with the Time Inc., seal of approval.

We’ll have easy chairs for our easy well-decorated lives in the backyard.  We are obsessed! with comfort. Gorgeous comfort. Easy gorgeous flaccid plumping fun comfort.  Seriously. Right now.

But we’ll beat diabetes by eating pizza.

Don’t forget to grab a soda energy drink at the register.  Otherwise, you may pass out from exhaustion in the parking lot.

Birthday Girl

Mrs. U has resolved to start counting backward this year, lest our lives surreptitiously cross the halfway pole while we’re not looking.

I just tell people we got married at 16. Sixteen? Really? Wow….

Problem solved.  See how easy that was? Never underestimate the efficacy of discursive bullshit.

We met in college, so it’s only a wee bit of exaggeration.   She got a teaching credential and I got my MR. degree, to alter a joke, as she would prove to be the fateful encounter and our marriage the lasting achievement of those years from my end.

Would we have met in the Tinder era? In my canine greed, I might have swiped past her and bumblefucked my way into my thirties, insensible to cosmic error. Alternatively, had we both swiped right, would we have lasted, or passed through each other on our way to greater debauchery greener pastures?

Say this for the dial-up era, it demanded conversational skills.  Also the ability to share space quietly, without screens or stimuli.  The virtues of courtship may have fallen from favor, but longevity establishes a beachhead there.  I married for substance and got stuck with beauty.

A social determinist would note both our parents were married for fifty years, and credit our union as regression to the mean.  As clever and rebellious as we thought we were, the fix was in.  We were the marrying kind.

There are too many moving parts in the whirlwind for such easy explanation. You can believe in a doting fairy godmother, like Mrs. U, or you can give thanks to bigger hands.

The Joy of Parsimony

I don’t know when this peach-colored brick was born, but for decades it was pressed into service as a stone in a backyard grill in Santa Monica.  After the Northridge earthquake, it collapsed into a pile of bricks, where it sat for two decades.  Then the daughter of the man who built the grill heard of my Untitled Mosaic Brick Project and brought it to me in a box with a bunch of other nicely aged pieces.   The gnarled dark colored bricks were part of a geometrically impaired flower bed I wanted to put a sledgehammer to the minute we bought the house. It took a decade, but I got around to it.

Almost everything in this tableau is recycled. The bamboo came from a yard down the block.  They were in the process of poisoning it all, who knows why. I dug it up in clumps and wheelbarrowed it over.  The succulents were pullings from another neighbor.

Some of these concrete pieces came from a condemned gas station on Roscoe Blvd. Others from various buildings sites around the Valley.  All with the irresistible price point.

The wood in the gate and the trellising was plucked from a dumpster behind a granite yard on Raymer Street.

Dumpsters, really? Why? Cause Mr. UpintheValley was broke AF not so long ago.  These hardwoods, from Brazil and India, were once part of the crating for granite slabs. They had non-conforming sizing and a wonderful texture and cost nothing.  Even the latch on the other side of the door was made from leftover copper piping from when I re-plumbed the house.  Also the hinges, on closer observation, were once part of something else.

Perhaps the distance between myself and the Favela can be measured in a smack habit and a mortgage.   We cover a lot of the same ground.  We salvage and repurpose things.

Methinks the joy of saving money, no longer a necessity, is eclipsed by something more primal. Hunting and gathering. Squatting on my haunches in the sun, breaking and re-shaping things with hand tools. Creating something from spare parts that will be unique and has no other author.

The Narrow Margin

If it’s unclaimed ground, no matter how slight or uninviting, the protean Favela will put it to use, as surely as the sun rises in the East.

This feral world and the farmhouse behind it are separated by a mere chain link fence. A silent agreement. They pee on their pavement and not on our hydrangeas and we ignore their degradation. Who thinks twice about these arrangements any more? Mr. UpintheValley wonders how firm the civilizational lines are. Should the wet ass hour descend suddenly, without warning, if say the LAPD withdrew, how soon before we retreated to the armed safety of castle doctrine?

What would the wet ass hour consist of? What would precipitate it? Most Angelenos, myself included, operate so far removed from the maxims of prudence which have historically governed human relations on planet earth, the return to the Hobbesian default would come as a shock, then an affront, then self-chastizing horror as we retreated to safety. How could we have ignored the obvious?

Theft under $950 has been de facto legalized in Los Angeles.  As far as the city government is concerned, there are no borders. We issue free phones, debit cards, and health care to the indigent.  What is well-watered will grow.

What Is It About White Maids?

Because maids always work with their eyebrows done and their lips pursed, sipping through an invisible straw, approaching the dirt layers as through drawing Cupid’s bow. They work in form-fitting tops and look like a younger Sela Ward.

Nobody who cleans in Los Angeles is dark, squat, menopausal, Spanish-speaking or stooped with years of carpal tunnel-eroding labor.  Nobody rides the bus.  Nobody has another life on hold while white people are serviced.

For marketing purposes, maids are forever Anglo and look like yoga instructors.  That’s what cleaning is, right? Just a series of poses that makes the ick go away.

A Google image search for “Maids, Los Angeles” turns up the cast of Devious Maids, the Castillian nose telenovela twist on the sexy white maid template… also sexy Halloween costumes, anime links, and…

…Mildred Baena, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s former housekeeper turned comfort woman baby mama.

I suspect Maria Shriver felt on safe ground with Mildred, who checked all the boxes on the non-threatening-female-under-my-roof matrix, but one: fertility.    Mildred, a name rich with cinematic foreshadowing, might have been another missed clue.