It’s been eventful. We went to Death Valley and I was suitably overwhelmed by the salt, wildflowers, snow, sand and ‘lowness’ of the place. Death Valley is below sea-level and the sense of constantly traveling on land that once wasn’t land hung over me as we traveled across the miles of it. Lots has been said about the magnificence of the place — it’s all true. It’s surreal. It’s majestic. It made me sad.
In this below-sea-level basin, steady drought and record summer heat make Death Valley a land of extremes. Yet, each extreme has a striking contrast. Towering peaks are frosted with winter snow. Rare rainstorms bring vast fields of wildflowers. Lush oases harbor tiny fish and refuge for wildlife and humans. Despite its morbid name, a great diversity of life survives in Death Valley.
Yes, I reminded myself of the diversity of life, and the yellow wildflowers were coming up in many places. Apparently, there will be an explosion of them this year.
Then we got stuck in the desert. We were driving to the ghost town of Ballarat and on a washed-out stretch of gravelly dirt road, our car made horrible noises and died. It was just past noon, the sun in the sky. Things I thought of: bread, cheese, bananas (food in the car); water (six small bottles); knitting, books (entertainment for me); crayons (entertainment for my daughter). We settled in to hail passing cars. There was one every half hour or so.
We stopped three or four, asked them to contact a ranger. They assured us they would. We took it on faith. Nobody looked keen to give us a lift. We didn’t ask. We decided if help hadn’t come by 4 pm, we would. We took turns guesstimating how long help would arrive in. I aimed at knitting 12 inches before help arrived, then 18 inches. Our almost-four-year-old tried to sleep in the backseat. I had washed her face and neck with water and taken off her jeans. She was ok.
Help arrived at around 4 pm, about an hour before sunset. The cop (turned out this was actually outside park limits and not in the ranger’s area) said there had been three or four calls about us. He bumped the car to the side of the road, called a tow truck, gave us a lift to the nearest desert motel. Cell phone signal–aha! We drank beer and ate a lot of fries. We let our daughter make a meal of fries and ice cream.
It was after dark when the tow truck arrived and we drove back to the same spot to pick up the car. The desert was silent, we passed no cars for miles. I don’t remember passing any but maybe I missed the one or two that I did. Or maybe there really were no cars. Sam, the driver of the tow truck, turned up the music and jigged about. He sounded annoyed when my daughter was chatty. I shushed her. We sat in silence, except for the music, for two hours, bumping along, the towed car hulking behind us. When we reached Ridgecrest, a town with lights and shops and grocery stores, I laughed nervously. Even Sam seemed to thaw. “We even have a Hilton,” he said.
Here is a far scarier story about Death Valley.
And from this article:
“It’s important for people to know that only a tiny portion of Death Valley has cell phone reception,” search and rescue coordinator Micah Alley wrote in an e-mail. “GPS units are not only fallible but send people across the desert where no road exists.”
Over the past 15 years, at least a dozen people have died in Death Valley from heat-related illnesses, and many others have come close. Another hiker vanished last June in Joshua Tree National Park. His body has not yet been found.
These are not just stories of unimaginable suffering. They are reminders that even with a growing suite of digital devices at our side, technology cannot guarantee survival in the wild. Worse, it is giving many a false sense of security and luring some into danger and death.
Transplants have to stay somewhere for a while to make it theirs. For me, the Incline has become a shabby-chic monument to this idea. Now it is closed for reconstruction, and I worry about what will be left when work is done. Will it still resemble the landmark I invested with weight, the road I drove with my children? Will I recognize it, recognize my memories, or will all that be erased? Southern California, its critics like to insist, is a landscape of forgetting, but I no longer believe this to be the case. Rather, like the Incline, it is a landscape of association, in which the connections we make, our attachments, are what render us native.
And a rather hefty list of the 100 best Articles and Essays of 2014 and 2015.
A fractal is a complex and infinite pattern that repeats itself over and over. According to fractalfoundation.org, fractal patterns surround us, in nature. Trees, rivers, coastlines, mountains, clouds, seashells, hurricanes, all fractals. A screenplay is a fractal or can be written as one. From Scriptwrangler.blogspot.com: “The overall three-act structure resonates like a crystal. Its structure is replicated in all the smaller beats. Within the beats, the three-act structure plays itself out, and with each vibration on every level, the story becomes more and more significant, whole, and moving.” And screenwriter John August in an interview: “No matter the script, though, you’re trying to make sure every moment can stand in for the whole movie. It needs to be fractal in a way. And yet, each of those moments has to be advancing the plot, too.”
At UCLA, one of our assignments was to watch a movie every week and write a detailed breakdown of its scenes, observing the acts, midpoint, low point, resolution etc. The ambit was wide. We could watch movies in any language, from any country or period. I watched some foreign films, some mainstream Hollywood and some modern Hindi films. It was interesting to me that many of the last do follow the three act structure—in recent times, Lootera, Queen, NH10 come to mind— but there is the additional question of the Intermission, which doesn’t exist here in LA but is expected in India. The 15-minute break is a time and space for rejuvenating yourself before you return to sort of “tackle” the next half of the movie. In a culture where three-hour movies are common, each half needs tackling, some kind of will power. Indian movie halls understand this. They provide a feast to help you do it. In LA, even the fancy Arclight in Hollywood serves hotdogs, ice-cream, popcorn (one flavor), assorted candy. I visited Mumbai’s PVR cinemas in Lokhandwala every week after Amaya was born. Postpartum and exhausted, I’d sink into a plush seat and feed myself. There were hotdogs, rolls, crepes, ice-cream, popcorn (several flavors), nachos, chaat, and some other items I forget. The food was almost as important as the film.
The Intermission means that Hindi movies need to provide a turning point exactly halfway through the movie which is pretty major—so that people will come back to their seats.
Structure doesn’t need to be predictable. And it is not of course “formula”, which is something many women mix in 3 or 4 ounces of water and hold to their baby’s mouths when they’re tired, milk-less or generally done with breastfeeding. I remember Patience Agbabi reading at the University of Kent sometime in the winter of 2010. Somebody in the audience asked her about her choice to write in rhyme. She said—and I’m paraphrasing—a poem could be such an amorphous thing, that the rules of formal verse helped you find / give form to thoughts..
According to Screenplayunlimited.com: “What’s so liberating about the 3-act structure is that when it’s used as it should be -which is in a dramatic rather than a logistical way – you can use it to structure not only the whole script but also each part.” Structure allows you a space to play, defines playground walls so you won’t run out in the road and get hit by a car while you’re doing it. The problem is sometimes the walls are as terrifying as the cars.
The most useful thing structure did was to keep us hopeful writers going. Writing the second act may be like “driving through Kansas” but when you’re just ten pages from the ‘turning point’ of page 60, there is hope. As we sat in libraries, Starbucks, artisanal coffee shops, parks and in my case, an Ikea futon, we needed that hope.
The chances of a screenplay being produced is minuscule, we were told repeatedly. At best, it will be a calling card, a ‘sample’ so you can get jobs writing / rewriting other people’s screenplays. At worst, you will spend the next thirty years sitting in Starbucks, next to the homeless guy who spends all night outside the ATM at the corner of Sunset and Vine.
The hope then is not of fame, prosperity or untold greatness. It’s mostly about finishing the damn thing. At that point, structure provides the next step. You focus on that one step, the next loop in the fractal. You see it over and over again, in your dreams. You escape the bigger picture, the panic and the futility. You make it. Eventually.
Crochet is all about structure because you’re imposing patterns on yarn. Diana Taimina does something called hyperbolic crochet which looks like this.
From crochetcoralreef.org: “For hundreds of years mathematicians tried to show that anything like hyperbolic space was impossible, until finally, in the nineteenth century, they accepted the “existence” of this aberrant geometry. Still many believed it wasn’t possible to model the structure materially. They were thus surprised to learn in 1997 that Dr. Daina Taimina had done just that using the traditional art of crochet.”
And here is something beautiful: these folks have created an interactive map of science which demonstrates how all the different fields of science relate to each other. You’ll need to click on the image link and scroll down a bit to see the interactive version.
Driving into a freeway is like diving—the roar in my ears, a sense of being submerged, almost drowning, and somehow, I’ve surfaced onto the right lane. I coast along, buffeted by a force greater than me, like wind, the collective will of people wanting to get somewhere.
The 110 or Pasadena Freeway is also called the Arroyo Parkway because in parts it runs next to the Arroyo Seco, a seasonal river and canyon, literally “dry stream” in Spanish and now after four years of drought in California, certainly dry in most parts. Being a Parkway (a road that connects to a park), it’s prettier than many freeways and more dangerous. This was the first freeway in the western United States, the first of the great American roads on this strip of coast. It’s a dangerous distinction. It was built for 45 miles per hour; cars swoosh past at 70 miles per hour. Because it opened in 1940, and because America is a new country, the Parkway is lovingly called the ‘Historic’ Parkway. Coming from a country where we take history for granted, we find this both amusing and faintly moving. We live on a hill above the freeway—Ads, my husband of fifteen years, our daughter, almost four, and I.
We moved to Los Angeles in September 2014 so I could study screenwriting at UCLA film school. Ads didn’t get his work permit for 6 months. For those months, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood, surrounded by aspiring models, actors and writers, and some lovely seniors. Outside our gates, there were junkies, homeless people and other aspiring models, actors and writers. We were at the heart of all the glamour, traffic, beauty, sleaze and messiness. It was a good introduction to LA.
Fall turned to winter. I went to class, learned about Hollywood–the industry and the place, went to the gym. There were movies at Arclight, at the Dolby Theater (where the Oscars are held), Hindi movies at Burbank. I wrote my screenplay. We rationed our money, ate and drank cheap, explored parks, drove the Pacific Coastal Highway, drove the canyons, prayed for the work permit. Once the initial glow of tourism faded, I missed Indian food, Indian textiles, Indian film, warm weather. I felt awkward among the blonde models at the gym. I was tired of being broke. Our roof fell down. Or rather, the layer of plaster that had been caked on cheaply and thickly, fell down and lay about our living room in huge heaps of debris and dust. it took a week to repair.
It was February. Our dog got sick. He was old, 13. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong. It could be an infection, they said. It could be cancer. We fed him pills, thought he was improving. Three days before my birthday, he died. He died in the night, between 3 am when I went to sleep and 7 am when Ads woke up. I was not with him.
We drove around Hollywood, trying not to see the pet shops, we cried, we ate at Canters, wordless. On my birthday, Ads dragged me out of bed and drove me to Malibu where we stared at the sea and ate oysters. After that, I stayed in for a long time. During this time, I learned how to crochet, pouring energy into balls of wool and acrylic. They helped me cope with a house that gradually emptied of dog fur, the empty spot near my feet where our dog used to curl up.
As spring came, so did the work permit. I wrote my second screenplay. We moved east to a house that was a little bigger and came with no appliances, but had a stretch of bare, brown land around it and a view of the hills. I looked at the land and the hills and said yes even before going in. I grew succulents, drought-resistant grass, vegetables. We put chairs in the porch and sat there all summer. We went to flea markets, art shows, museums.
Up here, the cars are a hum in the background. The birds of the surrounding Arroyo Park visit our garden. Squirrels dig up lettuce, hunting nuts they’ve buried. I find the nuts sometimes, odd half globes of hope. Cats sleep. The windows look out on surrounding hills, the houses on the hills. There is a chair by the window, sunlit. There is a basket of yarn by its side, a book, a throw I knitted in memory of our dog. A mug of tea sits on the window sill.
It has been a place of healing and adventure, beauty and discovery. It has become home.
A month from now, we will pack our bags, abandon our plants, close the house and leave. We may come back. It’s not up to us.
This is to do with gods and immigration authorities. I suspect the two may be the same.
The title of this post says ‘where i live now’ and of course, ‘now’ is the important word. It seems like a strange time to start blogging again. This space–the blog–has been abandoned, quiet and dusty as an empty apartment, for almost two years. Maybe it’s precisely because I’m losing my moorings in actual space, that I feel the need for this space again. What is a website?–An anchor hanging in nothing, in air. And yet, an address.
I admire people who have less need for an address. Who feel comfortable traveling because whatever they need, they carry it with them. Maybe they are so comfortable in their own skin, that all they need is to carry themselves.