WELCOME TO SAINT ANGEL (novel)
WELCOME TO SAINT ANGEL tells the story of iconoclastic inventor Al Sharpe and his zany friends and their fight to stop development in a California high desert town. Theirs is a madcap battle against powerful adversaries to protect their homes and the land they love from the bulldozers. It is the story of an indigenous Occupy Wall Street movement that precedes the current movement by several years, wherein citizens from a small desert town take on greedy developers and bankers. Saint Angelinos flirt with violence in their conflicting claims to land and water rights, but avert disaster. The book is a dead serious comedy that addresses exurban sprawl and reckless development of fragile natural areas (the high desert and chaparral) and that celebrates everyday heroism in the face of disaster.
EXCERPT FROM WELCOME TO SAINT ANGEL
THE DESERT GREEN LAWN ASSOCIATION
Those of us foolish or spendthrift enough to grow a lawn out here meet once a month at Ches Noonan’s place in Two Horse Flats (used to). Truth be told, I stopped growing mine years ago. Ches’s house low and labyrinthine cavernous, half an air conditioned acre, hallways spoking off the entry hub like a hotel complex, cathedral ceilings in rooms fronting the pool, walls of glass. Cactus garden out front the only desert friendly touch–and Penny Noonan’s all season tan. Ornamental gravels in pie-shaped wedges around the cactus garden, color coordinated, seems like, by the folks who did St. Angel Family Mortuary. One and a half acres of grass with desert looming all sides, like a plantation set plunk in the middle of Arabia. Or a movie set. Like a studio came out and laid turf over the sand. Folks passing on the county highway plow tire tracks in hot asphalt slowing to look: sprawling ranch house, Olympic-size pool, palm trees…all that grass. Ireland gone west. What my ex-wife Sondra would call a conundrum. Out here conundrum is our way of life. Life and death forever rubbing against each other. In March, life pulls a little ahead, vernal pools fill up and we get the wildflower bloom. Death catches up by mid-May when we get our first triple digit days.
“What we do is we pump water up from deep earth and spray it on the ground,” Ches explained at our last Christmas party. “What don’t evaporate trickles into the sand. You can hear grass roots sipping for all they’re worth.”
“What’s it sound like?” Esther Johnson asked. Esther’s always been a bit goofy.
“Why, like a kid slurping with a straw at bottom of a glass.”
Sam Jenson scowled. “Bull crap. I been here fifty-six years, I never heard no slurping.”
“You don’t have any grass roots to slurp, Sam.”
Sam worked a disdainful toe into Ches’s thick turf. “Hell no I don’t. I’m water wise and desert smart. You won’t catch me spraying no water or evaporating if off my swimming pool neither.”
“Some of us have dreams,” Esther said primly.
“No damn snowbird is got nothing to teach me.”
“How can I be a snowbird when I live here year round, Sam?”
“Up here.” Sam tapped his head and turned to Ches. “I’ll tell you something else, Mr. King of God’s Creation, they dug a well over to Hungry Man Canyon deep enough they hit peterfied wood. That’s a lesson ri’chere: redwoods drank too much water. Look where it got us. Waste not want not. You and your upnorther ideas is a blot on the desert.”
“Doesn’t seem to stop you from enjoying my pool.”
“Our pool! You fill ‘er up with water belongs as much to me as it does to you.”
Ches got a hoot out of that. He called to Penny, entertaining a group of Silk-Setters across pool. “Sam says we’re running a public swimming pool here.”
“I do believe it.” Penny frowned at the motley crew of us surrounding her husband. Ches smoothed down the divot Sam had taken in his lawn with the toe of a huge shoe. It’s a grass growing principle out here: entropy makes the slightest inroad, you have gophers, bushy-tailed ground squirrels, red ants, moth larvae, drought–God knows what all–trashing your lawn.
We began as the DESERT LAWN GROWING ASSOCIATION: DLGA. But the Desert Links Golf Association threatened to sue us for appropriating their acronym. So we switched to DESERT GRASS GROWING ASSOCIATION: DGGA–until long hairs started leaving petitions to legalize marijuana at our county fair booth, and Nora Proudhon, some of them, threatened to quit, fearing people would mistake us for a pot grower’s association. So we changed again to DESERT GREEN LAWN ASSOCIATION: DGLA.
From the start, folks at DGLA saw me as their mascot. Me and Sage Littlefeather (representing the La Cienega del Diablo nation), among the few members whose income is under six figures. A mascot, as everyone knows, is what its team condescends to but doesn’t wish to be. I had a lawn at first. Kept it green for a time, until grass woke me up mornings with its screaming, anticipating the day’s heat. There’s some can’t hear it. Dogs and black birds can. I’ve seen gophers emerge from their burrows at height of the racket and scamper off down the county road. When members protested I was setting a poor example, I argued that grass still remains grass in its dry state. “Half the hills in California are covered in sere grass. I’m holding up tradition.” Members voted to keep me in. Littlefeather and them suggested I paint my brown grass green, like they do in modular estates over in Hemet. No way, Jose!
With Sage, Hailey Sahlstrom, Sam Jenson, Rob and Daphne Thompson, I founded the Honesty Faction of the DGLA (later known as the Dirt Faction) and challenged Ches for president. “You notice they’re all leftover hippies, Indians and desert rats,” I overheard John Sylvester complain one meeting. I walked over and asked which category I fit into. “Goodness!” Clover Abernathy said, a hand pinned to chest of her flowery yellow blouse as if rooted there. “Why, I’d call you our resident hippie hanger-on, Sharpe.” Sylvester smugged his chin.
“That’s better than what my ex used to call me.”
Ches laughed. “What was that?” Large man, Ches, a peculiar pink diamond-shaped wart tip of his nose. Huge feet: 16 triple D. I know shoes, once worked as a salesman at Walksmart over in Escondido. Sondra called it my “foot period”–previous to my “armpit period.” Body basic employment.
“You don’t want to know, Ches, and I sure as hell don’t want to tell you.”
“Goodness,” Clover said.
I lost the presidency, but won a free lifetime membership for running.
Nobody knows what all Ches does for a living. There’s real estate development, dot-com stuff, people say. “He’s in shifty money,” Sam Jenson believes. “What people make without making nothing at all.” Ches sits on the Municipal Water Board and down at Western Enterprise Bank, half the boards in the county. He was county supervisor, but gave it up once developments started going in. Stayed long enough to give developers the green light to hijack our way of life. All in all, Ches should rightly be over among the wealthy in Palm Desert. But he prefers it here in St. Angel among “real people.” We’ve got those in ready supply. Desert doesn’t give you much choice but be real. Dirt grit sweaty.
Sam Jenson was the true local item. His yard dry and dead as long as anyone can remember, even his yucca andprickly pear looked thirsty. So Sam should’ve been the natural leader of our insurrection. But there’s no sane person on earth would follow Sam. Come winter, he twined Christmas lights in among dried honeysuckle vines on the cyclone fence out front of his place; nights, it looked like honeysuckle had returned to life. He didn’t believe in lawns but came to meetings each month to keep us honest. Regular rattus aridus of the true variety. His skin brown as a paper sack and lizard coarse. Sam wore the same filthy khaki shorts and long-sleeved shirt winter and summer. Ches would remind him to shower before going in the pool, believing Sam came to rinse off: “When does he ever see water?” But I knew Sam came for free beer. He gave up on water years back. Hardcore realist, Sam.
His vintage Airstream trailer parked on its lonesome out Yucca Road, surrounded by a tumbledown chain-link fence, half oxidized and turned to powder in the sun. What Tinkerspoon dubbed “the finest Chevy junkyard in Southern California.” His place lit up like the Time’s Square Christmas tree Thanksgiving to Easter. “Nine-hundred-seventy-six bulbs in six colors, half blinking,” Sam would tell you. Not including sprays of icicle bulbs hung from Tamarisk, fence, rusted car chassis–anything that drooped or ledged. Half Sam’s Social Security check went for replacing bulbs. Ches aligned his Cessna Skylane to Sam’s place flying home nights from meetings in L.A.. Penny Noonan once told me I looked to Sam as a role model. Nonsense. Only a lunatic lizard could see Sam as a role model.
If Sam was the self-appointed representative of sand and creosote bush–no doubt Death sent him over as its direct representative to the DGLA–his opposite would be Sage Littlefeather. Closest we have to a pure life force in the valley. Besides Finley. True son of Saint Angel. “Sam’s problem is he’s standing upside down,” Sage once declared. “Your desert world is turned all topsy turvy, like an upside down lake, except the bottom is dry. Dig down and you find slimy green water. What Mexicans call ‘la cienega,’ where water bubbles up from below. It’s gotta be a whole lots of life force down there to push water up through the sand.”
“Dingblat Indian,” Sam said.
Sage laughed and slapped his back. “Oncet this dude here planted himself a garden. It didn’t grow good so he give it up. He been give up ever since.” Silk Set women laughed uncomfortably. Worried them, I believe, that Sage’s people would show up one day, get to admiring their grass and reclaim the valley for themselves. La Cienega del Diablo Indians. Named for malodorous swamps, like the one on my place.
Sage is right about the water down below. An ocean of it, part flowed off the mountain from winter rains, part fossil water. It tastes like time, our water, when you pull it up from the earth. Mine one of the few remaining wells in the valley doesn’t belong to the Saint Angel Valley Water Authority or Ches and Cal Hale or what they have on the rez. The Big Four, people call us. Sage calls us: The Big Two and little two. More like.
Word was, Penny never wanted the DGLA to meet regularly at their place. But Ches is lawn-proud and grass-worthy public-spirited. Figuratively speaking, you might say he agrees with Sam: the water belongs to us all. Used to, anyway. While Penny’s that type you find over in Palm Springs, dedicated hedonist, skin baked leathery dark. Once, in the early days, I wandered by accident into Ches and Penny’s bedroom in search of a bathroom just as she peeled off her bikini top. I stared dumbly. “Christ! excuse me, Penny.” She stood silhouetted against mirrored glass doors leading out to the pool–stripping nonchalantly before her unsuspecting guests beyond–head tilted, lips parted, bemused at my embarrassment. “That’s got to be the whitest bra I ever saw,” I blurted, just to say something. Though could plainly see dark nipples high on her small white breasts. She didn’t smile, skin merely crinkled about her nose. Penny peeled off bikini bottoms as if to see what I would say next. I turned and fled, recalling stories you heard about Penny and Cal Hale…Rob Thompson. Out here you have to be careful, secrets get picked up like tumbleweed on a dry wind.
“Oh come now, Sam. If it was up to you we’d have nothing but sand and creosote bush as far as the eye can see. Where would you get your monthly shower?”
Sam red-faced furious. Time to get him a cold brew. Elderly members of the Silk Set retreated to admire a hedge of peppermint bushes Ches had put in. Esther saying she didn’t know what Sam was doing here anyways since he didn’t believe in lawns. “This is the Desert Green Lawn Association, not the Dust Bowl From Hell Club.” Penny studying me from across pool. Sam pointed at the bleached cow’s skull mounted to the hood of his ‘76 Olds Cutlass–missing back doors and windows, half the windshield, mottled a bleached beige in places, baked enamel brown in others. “I come as a representative of desert truth. I come to let you know you’re visiting but you ain’t welcome. Any old time she wants this back–” sweeping a hand across Ches’s lawns, house, Penny in her itsy black bikini “–she’ll open her mouth and swallow it.” Not hard to imagine, given sand drifted half way up a retaining wall east side of Ches’s place. No element is less impressed by what we do to contain it than sand. Unless it’s water.
Point is, all seemed harmless jesting at the time. Who could imagine what it would grow into? Or imagine how far it would go? The weather was still quite reliable then. You could look around and say: All this makes perfect sense, folks making the best of a harsh climate. Could smile at Penny and think: the world is a fine and neighborly place, I have no claim on her nudity.
WORKS IN PROGRESS
WRESTLING WITH MY SECRET SELF:
A Memoir of Living with Epilepsy
In the summer of 2009, I suffered multiple bouts of status epilepticus–one seizure following on the heels of another–which can be fatal. This inspired me to write a memoir about my struggle to lead a full life as a writer, teacher, activist, husband, and traveler despite my lifelong struggle with epilepsy. Mine is a story of falling and getting up again, over and over, the epileptic’s story. A story of living in the face of–even in defiance of–this mysterious brain ailment that can seize you at any moment, which most people know little about. I want to set the record straight. It’s scary, yes, but we learn to live with our disorder. I believe mine is a compelling story, an adventure tale of sorts, a story of accomplishment in the face of recurrent attacks, of denial and shame, finally of acceptance, a story of love and support, of setbacks and crises, and fleeting moments of victory and transcendence–because, for an epileptic, all remains fleeting, we are never secure.
Mine is called “the condition one should not talk about.” Like many epileptics, I learned to fear and deny my disorder as a kid. Having grown up in a family that would not discuss my fits, I can speak to the hurt such enforced silence brings, the legacy of shame and alienation it engenders. It has taken me years to accept my illness. When I was diagnosed with epilepsy as a child in 1956, twenty-seven states, including my home state of Oregon, still had compulsory sterilization and anti-marriage laws that applied to epileptics. This may explain my father’s reluctance to acknowledge my “spells.” After years of silence, I feel it’s time to talk openly and shamelessly about being an epileptic, to offer mine as a testimonial to the many individuals who struggle with the medieval superstition that still surrounds “the falling sickness,” to tell fellow epileptics, their families and the general public that there is little we can’t undertake and accomplish despite our ailment. I have skied (raced downhill and broken my jaw doing so), I swim, canoe, hike, travel, climb mountains, drive, ride motorcycles, and work out; I’ve taught in the toughest neighborhoods in New York, have commuted long distances, taught college, was the first VISTA Volunteer in Alabama, working in Civil Rights and anti-poverty programs. We are victims only to the extent that we victimize ourselves. It’s a message epileptics need to hear, because an aura of fear still haunts our ailment, reinforced by a society misinformed about it.
My memoir is an up-close account of what it is like to live with the falling sickness: the auras, simple partial and complex partial seizures, grand mal fits, post-ictal depressions, the nagging fears, the shame and denial, the hassles with medication and treatments, the secrecy, the hazards of driving, the self-limitations, the perils of work environments, the challenges our ailment poses in personal relationships, etc. But I also explore the hallucinatory auras and paranormal experiences our ailment offers many of us, how it teaches us to face our fears, how it has aided me–and other creative epileptics–in my work and given me a perspective on the world. I am convinced Dostoevski’s epilepsy helped him mine the depths of human grief and despair…and reach the heights of ecstasy, as did Frederick Handel’s. Likely Lewis Carroll’s experience of macropsia and micropsia in pre-seizural auras inspired him to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, and Moliere, schooled by his own experience with post and pre-ictal distortions of reality, was right at home in the realm of grotesque realism. My message in the memoir–both to epileptics and to the general public–is that most of us with epilepsy can lead full and gratifying lives. Our age-old “falling sickness” could just as well be called “the rising sickness” since we must keep getting up again. That is what epilepsy teaches us. We go down, yes, but we don’t stay down for long.