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.

On Billionaire Beach

Come to Malibu, said Johnny, we have a house this weekend. 
By house, he meant an AirBnB on Carbon Beach.
As a friend of friends, I was able to slipstream past the access point at Geffen’s house and park in a driveway.
Being a peasant from the Valley, I arrived overdressed.

It’s hard to think of Malibu and not think of James Mason walking into the sea.  Or Joan Didion composing despair on her balcony with a scarf around her head, or this painting by Alex Colville:

Which you might recognize in cinematic form, from the movie Heat.

There’s something about an empty house, the horizon line and eternity.  Self-destruction must be near at hand.

Malibu did not always reference glass box ostentation and social isolation.  It once meant simple cottages by the sea.  Single story. Wood shingle.  Mid-market.

Roddy McDowall maintained an open house policy at his bungalow in 1965 and the weekends were filled with Hollywood royalty eating hot dogs and drinking beer like, well, like people would in Van Nuys.  His home movies of the stars rusticating on his veranda are a window not only into timeless Pucci dress Marlboro-on-the-fingertips glamour but an era when the social contract worked for more people.  No maids.  No people living in cars. No lavish landscaping.  No security systems. No “coastal access points”.  Hollywood people may have been prettier than everyone else but were not appropriating public spaces for themselves.

To walk the beach Saturday was to stare at a row of uninhabited fortresses, propped up on stilts, in defiance of nature. Look at me! they demand, but don’t touch.  I am a show horse, here to signify the social pecking order. My utility is my expense.

The bigger the house, the less people use them.   (A corollary: the fancier the kitchen, the less people cook.)  Larry Ellison of Oracle owns ten, right here, within a mile of each other.  I don’t think he has a mistress stashed away in each one.  He’s hoarding, not from the little people, but from other mega-wealthy.

When you peek underneath the decks, things get a bit interesting.  The ravages of nature are everywhere.  In rough weather, the surf splashes up against the pilings, and into the wood framing and all things metallic.

If you believe in sea level rise due to anthropogenic global warming, why would you ever sink money into these structures?

Yet the prices only keep going up.  The AirBnB, which was only three bedrooms, sold this year for $18 million.  Despite their prolific funding of environmental causes, I suspect they don’t really believe in AGW on Carbon Beach.  Or maybe they half-do but are to content to rent the sand from Mother Nature for a few years before flipping it to the person who sells the tungsten rights to Uzbekistan under the table and needs a place to park the cash.

They decry the idea of a Mexican border wall, but they love their gates and cameras.  Just like they oppose all development west of La Cienega but expect crisply folded linens.  They love regulating plastic straws but there is never a limit on the carbon footprint of donors to the DNC.

As we had cocktails at sunset, living as billionaires for an afternoon, a dozen people lounging on the deck…clever, pretty and kind we may have been but not a child we had between us.

Two thoughts arose: If it’s good to be rich, perhaps it’s better to be a friend to the wealthy.

We may need a new vocabulary for what we are doing in California. Someone needs to translate for future historians of our Instagram feeds how we blew through so many civilizational stop signs.   How we committed suicide by other names.