Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Melting The Face of God

I took the photograph above after returning home from New York last summer. Either my house was burglarized by anti-Viagra forces bent on playing a practical joke, or the heat had its way with my candlesticks. It makes for a funny picture.

This year, I find myself preparing to teach a quick unit on the Book of Genesis and the Book of Revelations to my seniors as we launch into AP Literature, all while temperatures hover at 109 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Even with air conditioning, I feel the fires of hell.

If we need anymore evidence of Al Gore’s holiness as a prophet of increased heat and diminished humanity, we need look no further than the last two summers here in Los Angeles. This beginning of September week has seen temperatures in the 100s. Lightning strikes have given way to brush fires, including a scary one today in Acton, about forty miles north of Los Angeles. I am sure there will be more to follow.

Last year, in July, we had record temperatures here in the San Fernando Valley, including 119 in Woodland Hills. I thought I had escaped the worst of it by traveling, but when I returned home, I found that my air conditioner, which had been shut off for a week, could not handle the round the clock work to get the house down to a livable temperature. It took two days and periodic rest to defrost itself before everything was back to normal, except for the limp candlesticks.

Of course, whenever the weather here in Los Angeles does a number on us, I always think of Joan Didion’s essay, “Los Angeles Notebook” from her collection entitled Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Didion is my favorite essayist. She is the best at capturing the perceptible malignancy in daily life. She is the perfect writer for the late 60s—early 70s Los Angeles, the times of Charles Mansion, drug parties in Laurel Canyon, and the danger lurking in Santa Ana winds and earthquakes. She is the Raymond Chandler for the essay set, taking a hard, cool look at what being an inhabitant of Los Angeles truly means. Of course it means, according to Didion, unsettling fear.

She writes great imagery in “Los Angeles Notebook,” potently real to anyone from here. “There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon,” she begins the essay. “Some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sandstorms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to the flash point.” Danger is coming, to be sure.

She goes on to write of neighbors wielding machetes, Indians throwing themselves into the ocean, and the shriek of peacocks in the night. The heat, she says, is surreal. Here we tread across common ground. Outside, my neighborhood is achingly still. The sky is a deep blue with lurking clouds of smoke and smog from the fires. It is ominous, filled with evil.

We have only been back to teaching for three days. I am still not sleeping well, and the heat does not make things easier. Luckily, we have central air conditioning in each classroom and at home. I do remember working at schools without air. By the end of the day, my pants were glued to my legs, and the students were near catatonic. One of the greatest inventions of humanity is not the computer; it is the air conditioning unit humming just outside our windows.

The heat adds a dimension to these dog days that makes for nervous energy. I feel restless. I cannot concentrate. Even in the coolness of my classroom, my students and I are aware of the heat outside. We cross its plateau to get to the building. The asphalt in the parking lot is sticky and soft. Crickets haunt our hallways, searching for coolness and moisture.

We will get through it. By December, the air conditioner will be shuttered for the winter. We will wear sweaters and jackets, and our breath will make clouds in the cold air. God, I cannot wait.

Until then, I think of Joan Didion, the prophetess of doom, the bringer of harbingers of what’s to come. Los Angeles is a tinderbox right now, a stewing pot, a house of dry twigs. All it will take is a flash, and up it goes. Tornadoes of fire will stretch crimson arms to the sky. People will flee their homes. Horses will rear and scream as they are herded into carriers. Cats will hide under the bed. Television news helicopters will hover over canyons until late at night, capturing and broadcasting hell in primetime.

That last one is kind of ridiculous. All you see is fire and hillsides in the dark. I never can tell what city or area the fire is in until the newscaster tells me. Yet the helicopters continue to hover dangerously, even when it’s just smoke, fire, and night, and you cannot tell which way is up.

Tomorrow, I will teach another lesson on how the world will end according to the Book of Revelations. It is no secret how it will end. Just look outside.

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