Our House of Special Purpose

The sarcophagus of Czarist Russia
Christmas shopping, 2020

So I went to the Sherman Oaks Fashion Square mall last night thinking I would buy a little something-something for Mrs. UpintheValley only to be the last to learn Williams-Sonoma had shut its doors at that location. Moving on,  I tried to buy a different something-something at the home furnishings department at Macy’s and found myself in an empty register line for ten minutes waiting for the cashier to return from an errand. He never did and I left the mall -the mall!- empty-handed the week before Christmas.   Some day, twenty years from now, an archivist of late-stage capitalism will find me there in the security tapes, a box under each arm, muttering in confusion. Perhaps I will become a meme: 2020 Man.

There were no piped-in carols, no piano player, no sugary bread dough smells wafting up from Cinnabon on the ground floor to tickle my pleasure impulse feedback loop.  Fashion Square wasn’t closed entirely, that would be a bridge too far, a decision had been made, the line had been drawn…it just wasn’t very…open. The skeleton crews keeping the lights on were indifferent to my secular holiday desires. I could have walked the items out the front door without encountering an employee or fellow shopper.  Jennifer Connelly could have shown up on roller skates at any moment.  This was retail in a medically induced coma and I was molesting the patient.

As one not inclined to seasonal affective disorder, I’m discovering the absence of happy people in close proximity can be surreptitiously, accumulatively, depressing. It’s not a matter of seeking meaning in gift-giving or trying to re-create particular shared anticipations of years past.  Tis the creepy normalization of surrender all around us.

Ten minutes away, Hollywood Boulevard without people is like a scene from Vanilla Sky, deserted in a cinematic sort of way. Disorienting.  Foreboding.  Yet somehow there were enough weed shop derelicts loitering under the eaves, puffing away their EDD money, to make the entire street smell of cannabis from Vine to LaBrea.  I used to be pro-weed. Now it’s becoming synonymous with the failings of national character.

A depressing glimpse into the near future in which fewer of us work, more of us shall be high, most of us will be obedient to diktats from a nomenklatura which does not practice what it preaches.

How fearful, obedient, and self-jailing is America now.

Tangentially, I’ve binged The Last Czars, and find myself identifying more than I should with the Romanovs during their time in Yekaterinburg, at the House of Special Purpose, where they were taken in the final months before execution.

Nicholas the II was an incompetent head of state, presuming the throne by a divine right achieved via court inbreeding, a royal autocrat with one foot in the pre-modern world, and very likely Rasputin’s cuckold.

Like he, I am cooped up in a house for weeks on end on someone else’s orders. Beyond our gates, we sense the rules of the world, the operating presumptions, have changed. Nicholas and Alexandra were led to believe there would be a public tribunal.  They were strung along by a series of notes from guards pretending to be sympathizers, promising an imminent rescue.  Notes authored by Bolsheviks for the purpose of pacifying them. It will not be long, only a few more weeks…

The parents may have had an inkling of what was in store for them when they were asked to gather in the basement for a portrait photograph but didn’t think the children would be murdered in the same lot.  Shooting unarmed girls, even in the direct aftermath of WW I trench warfare and revolution, was the moral beyond.  Half the execution team couldn’t go through with their orders, which came directly from Moscow but had no author.  Lenin himself made certain his name was on no paperwork.

Yet it got done. The deep state blooms in the shadow of accountability. It took Russia seventy years to come back from this.

In a few months, er, sometime next year…the administrative state will declare permit the public to resume its normal freedoms of assembly and commerce. Only they won’t be freedoms anymore, but privileges revocable at any time.  Because we let them. It won’t be 2019, plus one year. We will be in a different “America” altogether, one in which freedom of speech is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Facebook and Alphabet, subject to deletion if determined to be misinformation by a Trust and Safety Council staffed in part by contract workers from India and China.  A Los Angeles ruled by selective prosecution, with permission slips for woke mobs to loot businesses and intimidate the public, with salutary beatdowns of dissenters pulled from their cars to serve as an example.  An “America” with unenforced borders, few reciprocal obligations of citizenship, and a whole lot of people as well as corporations seeking some version of free money.

I don’t know how long it’s going to take us to come back from this.  We’re still on the downslope. Something we can reflect on this Christmas, each of us quartered in his own house of special purpose.

Gratitude in Wuhantide

I’m eating steel cut oats this morning on the brick patio, fully nude, presenting my uncurated self to the sun,  and the new neighbor behind me, the one who doesn’t do autobody work or landscaping or hump boxes at TJ’s, the one who works in the music industry,  the one who peeked over the bamboo in April to say how much he admired my deck and with whom I made tentative plans to invite over for wine on said deck once, you know, the lockdown craziness had passed...is also on his patio this morning,  talking on the phone:

Do you know what the Magna Carta was? You think you do, but you don’t.
There were two. Most people don’t know that.
The secret Magna Carta was a way for the Royal family to collect money from countries the world over.
They’re richer than anyone knows. You are paying them money without knowing.
The Windsor family owns most of Los Angeles.  No, they do! Accept it.

It has been that kind of summer.  I wander naked, oatmeal bowl in hand, eavesdropping on conspiracy theories and call it Wednesday.

We can’t agree on the facts anymore, so we create entertainment to explain our world.   We burrow inward like the polyphagous shot-hole borer, lay our larvae, and let our fungus devour the tree from the inside. Two years after the pestilence, the sweetgums are falling all over my neighborhood this summer.

The Beautiful Young Man who Meditates could not be more at peace as he informs Mrs. UpintheValley, from a lotus position atop a car hood, the virus was invented for the purposes of installing tracking devices on everyone.

Los Angeles is getting a little autistic now, four months in. By robbing ourselves of facial cues behind our masks we can longer discern irony or return smiles. We fall into suspicion without exchanging words.   We make sport of denunciation.  We look inside our phones for the smoking gun proving the Other Side crazy.

The underlying facts remain unchanged, even if we don’t accept them. The virus will be lethal to 80-year-olds and obese diabetics.  The rest of us not so much, and on a declining scale of risk. Children not at all. So, by all means, close the schools. Let us have governmentally-inflicted entertainment; let’s put a tub of popcorn on the stove for Fear Porn II: The Return of Newsom.     

We deserve to be painted by Brueghel or Bosch.

What to do with this weird unrequested time-out?  Your early resentment at the induced economic coma is now a bit more philosophical. You decide to make a gift of it.  You make an abundance of your mornings.  There is nothing stopping you from creative projects. You are fertile in the afternoon, foraging for cuttings to propagate the yard, at least one per day.  You find rocks in the riverbed for the garden.   You finish the driveway and the retaining wall and it is glorious. You read Joan Didion, seeking a historical mirror, an interpreter of the weirdness, but can’t get past the fact she rented a 12 room mansion in Runyon Canyon on a magazine writer’s pay.  You try binge-watching House of Cards, and it already feels like an artifact of another era.  You shift to The Great, Hulus irreverent take on Imperial Russia, and huzzah, it hits the mark.  Portentously.

You ride your bike from Culver to Redondo -crowded beaches and wait time for patio tables- and note the general mask defiance. The following weekend you try the familiar haunts of downtown and find full mask compliance and a city on life support and mostly closed.   Skid Row remains in full bloom, giving the street parade a harder edge than normal. You wonder where the loft people are. Upstairs living off DoorDash, or out of town?  Has an exodus begun?   What of all the unfinished condo conversion?  You sense billions swirling the drain.

On the return home, you stop at MacLeod for a four-pack of Doubled Over Happy.  You adjourn to the upstairs deck, erected in a frenzy of inspiration only to be underutilized. The wisteria has grown over the trellis, providing full shade. There are always breezes. You have spent a good deal of time up there this summer, fertile and creative, closing a circle on a project started years before.

Tis a great bounty, this deck, prized by your own labor.  Unlike so many Sunday returns through the Cahuenga pass you are grateful for what you have. You feel advantaged to be living in the Valley. Gratitude snuck up on you while looking elsewhere.

Islamic Republic of Van Nuys

I went to MacLeod for a beer run and encountered this woman shuffling across Victory…hunched…clutching her mask to her ears as though warding off demons…fearfully navigating the sunshine.   This is what we’ve allowed the media to do to us. We veil ourselves as though we were living in Tehran, 1982.   What are we really afraid of?  I don’t think it’s the Wuhan virus. Being Karen-ed by a neighbor, on the other hand, seeking to collect her snitch reward…being ratioed by the Virtue Police on social media…these are our modern terrors.

Trader Joes is one of the few permissible places we are allowed out of doors.  How quickly we have acclimated to lining up like this.   Let’s roll back to February for a moment.  If you could be put in a time machine how confused would you be by our present submission?

It’s nearly May. The dreaded curve is in the rearview mirror. Our zealotry has exceeded any data-driven health concerns.  All is now a public demonstration of obedience to rules handed down by the Clerisy.

I feel I’m being a bit of a bore writing this for the third time. But neither the Mayor nor the Governor have the statutory power to suspend civil liberties. To hear them speak of the conditions which need be met before the economy can resume one is given the impression of a royal personage considering the granting of a favor.

Sweetheart, if you want to wear a mask and confine yourself to your rooms, no one is stopping you.  Which of course you are not doing. Nor are you going without a paycheck while you outline your terms of Our New Normal.  The rest of us, on the other hand, could do with some herd immunity.  You know what else?  We have centuries of good public health policy on our side.

We will regret letting the government bribe us with our own money to not work. Trixie likes a good belly rub, but she’d rather be climbing Runyon.  So would I.   So would you. Even if hiking isn’t your thing, liberty is.

Things To Do In The Valley When You’re Not Yet Dead

Here’s something you can do. Queue up at Whole Foods first thing in the morning and consider the novelty of economic martial law…only to find the bread aisle empty.   I have rather pointed thoughts as to the motivation of the hacks who diverted my beloved Los Angeles down this road.  In the spirit of shared sacrifice and heeding the counsel of Mrs. U, I am putting my inner Tom Paine to the side for the time being.

Shorter UpintheValley: Toilet paper is the new bottle of wine.

Instead, let us consider the glory of homemade bread.   Did you know you can make an entire batch of dough for $2?  I didn’t.  One batch = three or four loaves. Shape to suit your whimsy. Warm bread fresh from the oven tastes like nothing else, and for 65 cents a loaf makes the house smell like nostalgia for a childhood memory you never had.     Why didn’t we always do this? Free Time, our abundant new houseguest, that’s why.

Maybe overall health will improve, she said optimistically. Perhaps people will get tired of empty calories and consume less processed food from the market.  Maybe they’ll model reading for their children and both parents will tuck them in at night. 

And he replied: People will continue to be themselves, only more so, and in a righteous mood.

You can also do this:  rent a 20-foot bin, break out the sledgehammer, the pick, and the prybar and dig up your asphalt driveway.   House arrest is the panacea for long-postponed projects. Taxing on the lower lumbar,  restorative of the animal spirits.

You can take to the mountains with the dogs to discover five hundred other people were inspired to visit the same trail at the same time. Maybe I should try baking a banana cream pie, you hear a woman announce to her husband as she passes. No, you really shouldn’t, he replies.  I promise I’ll eat it, you butt in, to collective laughter, and for a moment our metropolis is a curious polite little village where everyone lives six feet apart.

You can read and read and read. I wanted to get back into John Le Carre but the Los Angeles public library has him under lockdown, so I’m settling for E.M. Forster, who has not aged as well as the film adaptations.

You can watch and watch and watch, and soon enough Narcos: Mexico and Mindhunter are done, and then one is left thinking of Nemesis and Hubris and their role in our self-inflicted moment.

Yeah, this guy. Mr. 56%. But that’s a whole other essay I promised I wouldn’t write.