To: Simon, Katie, Mom, Sarah, Barb, and Patricia
Subject: Hi from the desert
I have just finished reading a book for Book Club and, there being no one else around, I thought I’d write and tell you my thoughts. (You have just joined Book Club.) There are only two standing members of Book Club: me and Lucas Hitch, my boss’ middle son. Here’s how it goes:
1) Lucas reads an interesting book from an obscure publisher.
2) I hound him about what book I should read next until he finally relents and gives me a title. Usually one where the main character is a 25 – 40 something opinionated feminist searching for the meaning of life. He thinks I’ll relate. He’s usually disappointingly right, but those are not my favorite stories, I’ll have you know.
Sometimes Book Club has a guest reader. Usually it’s Lucas’ dad, Neal, who gets tired of not knowing what we are talking about in the car. Lucas works at the Museum over the summer and we ride back and forth from town to Ocotillo and back, a captive audience for Neal’s terribly interesting and knowledgable lectures. That is only a little bit sarcastic. I tell people I’ve been in a PhD program for 5 years now, by virtue of listening to Neal, and I think my latest work, of which I’m very proud, shows the profit.
I digress. Once in a while, in the car, I manage to bring up my analysis of the book I just finished reading and tell Neal now he’s three books behind for Book Club. Even though Neal doesn’t have time to read because he’s too busy try to keep both a Museum and his family afloat on this non-profit crazy train, he enjoys the pay-off to Book Club, which is intellectual discussions. Other guest readers could be a Museum intern, someone we hike with all the time and again gets tired of not knowing what we are talking about, or sometimes my mom, if I think she’ll like the last book we read. This is one of them. The book I just finished reading is written almost entirely in emails, texts, and documents relating to a slightly off-kilter genius artist, her daughter, husband and what happens to an artist when they stop creating (mayhem). I highly recommend it. It’s called Where’d you go Bernadette? by Maria Semple (Back Bay Books, reprint 2013). I spent the morning polishing off the last 50% of the book (it’s a percentage only because I can’t figure out how to get the Kindle to show page numbers. When did technology get away from me? I’ve given up on TV remotes entirely. I just ask someone else to change the channel, skip the commercials, change to the AV source, whatever. If I try myself it usually ends in me disconnecting the satellite, which means a twenty minute re-boot that was all my fault while everyone waits to see that show we all sat down specifically to watch. Embarrassing.)
Last night was my first night back in Ocotillo alone after spending three weeks almost entirely with the Hitches, and, no reflection on the Hitches, I had a leisurely morning in bed, enjoying the quiet, and finishing Where’d you go Bernadette? When the book ended, it was time for coffee.
The first thing I did, which is what you do in a trailer in a desert that has been unoccupied for a while, was check to see if the ants that I had battled last night (first with lemon juice and dish soap, and then finally, heartlessly – not in my BED! – with flying insect spray I found in a closet at the Museum) had moved on to taking over the kitchen while I slept. Getting up and checking for bug outbreaks as the first thing on your morning “to do” list made me think, not for the first time, that I could write a book about this. It would probably be a lot like Bernadette’s story: privately languishing in self pity, looking for redemption in the wrong places, and finally, just living off the adventure. I bet we have all done that – all of us involved in the Hitch’s 10 year adventure – we all think we could write a book about this. Where’d you go Bernadette? made me want to tell my story about the crazy little places you can go in the world. They all have their own quirks, but they are essentially all the same. More than write it, I just wish I could share that experience with you. Today I miss you all very much. This adventure is so much more fun when there is company.
On the other hand, there are hazards to having company on a non-profit adventure – you own nothing and share everything. Today, I woke up relaxed in my trailer, finally alone in my desert oasis, and walked over to the other trailer to make coffee because that’s where the Hitches left the only coffee pot. The bottom of my feet burned on the way. Oh right. It’s summer. In the desert. Duh. I put the coffee on and nimbly ran back to my trailer for milk and flip flops, and picked up my computer so I could write and tell you about this crazy place I am living. Did you know that you cannot wear jewelry here in summer? It will burn you. The ambient temperature is so hot it heats up earring hooks, necklace chains, and watch backs to a very, very uncomfortable temperature, causing you to rip them off as quickly as possible in shock, alarm, and finally, with the realization that you should have known better. When I first arrived here someone described the summer heat as pointing a hair blow-drier in your mouth while you hold a hot iron up to your face. Imperial County is the hottest place to live in the US, second only to Death Valley. We should make “I survived” t-shirts for the Museum.
Anyway, so I went to get milk and flip flops. I looked for the sugar, but in its place is a giant container of salt. In my absence, Anne has made the trailer her own. This is the problem with sharing an adventure. Every thinks they own something here, and really we all own nothing. The Hitches, I think, are disappointed that I’m going to stay in their trailer (giving up the place I think of as home here: my imitation NYC loft that makes the whole trailer mine by virtue of I sleep in the common area), but neither Anne nor I, I’m sure, wish to live together again. Not because there is animosity, but because you own nothing and share everything and can’t I just get a second to myself once in a while! It eats you up slowly. Trust me, it’ll be better for our work productivity if we don’t live together.
This trip to a crazy place is different from all the rest – it’s a return. We are all experienced desert adventurers now. There is no new intern to show around town. No one that needs entertaining. We all know where everything is (bank, casino, hot springs, hiking) and where to get it. Now we just have to orchestrate getting what we want with one vehicle and seven different ideas of how to do it. Thank heavens there is a hierarchy or we’d never make it. Rule #1: Deneen (matriarch) gets what she wants. Neal (Museum Director) provides us with jobs, direction, and housing so he’s #2 on the list. It gets fuzzy after that. Your place in line can change based on the project we are working on, whether it’s your birthday, are Deneen’s child, or have just returned from vacation. And, if you have gone somewhere nice for vacation you are lower on the list than everyone because you did something fun without us. And worse, experienced luxuries that just don’t exist here. Like shop at an H&M (where the boys are getting suits for the Hitch’s oldest son’s wedding and, which has resulted in no less than 3 trips to San Diego to accomplish that feat). Imperial County is actually a step up from the Turks and Caicos where eating beef off island without bringing some back with you could get you cold-shouldered for days. Until we all went swimming. When you come out of those waters everything is a crystal clear clean slate. (I don’t think slate can actually be clear, but that doesn’t make a very good story, now does it?)
In these crazy little places we adventurers come and go so frequently that we hardly matter, but we don’t realize it. We become so involved in our projects and our lives that we share with just a few people that we think we become a part of the place. We don’t. You don’t. You do not make a mark on the place. The place makes it’s mark on you. Your job is to carry the lessons forward.
All of my latest adventures are to the Hitches credit. Their family is born out of a communal lifestyle I never quite understand, but enjoy living in. You own nothing, but share everything. It’s a lifestyle that reaches through the people it touches to touch other people. It’s part of a 100-year plan. And it’s working. Now I tell the Hitches that my life is a giant inside-joke-with-no-one about their lives. The life they share with me. No one knows the jokes outside of our museum-living circle, but I tell them anyway. I travel around so much it’s a way of bringing the familiar with me. The stories make me laugh and make me feel closer to my friends, even if I get funny looks: “I’m just trying to give directions, why are you talking about a telephone booth?” On Grand Turk a telephone booth was damaged and removed, but locals still give directions by where the telephone booth used to be. If you don’t know where it was, you are sh*t out of luck.
What’s funny is that the stories are spreading. Just before I left New England somebody else told one of Neal’s jokes. I was taken aback – how did she know? – but I guess that’s how often I talk about my past lives: they are becoming other people’s stories. I think that people think I’m trying to live in the past, but really I’m trying to bring the past into my present. The lesson I carry forward is that life can be fun if you manufacture opportunities to make it so. Telling stories of a time when all we did everyday was turn massive amounts of hard work into massive amounts of really fun work reminds me that I can make life what I want it to be; all the power rests in my hands. Powerful stuff, no? Worth remembering.
As always in Book Club, that’s not very much information about the book, but lots about what the book brings to mind. Want more? You can read a review here: http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/no-place-like-home/Content?oid=14396533 or an interview with the author here: http://bnreview.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Discover-Great-New-Writers/quot-Comedy-is-Born-Out-of-Strong-Characters-quot-A-Conversation/ba-p/8643
P.S. Some of you may see this duplicated in a blog post.