I stopped wearing sunglasses the day I moved to Southern California. I had never been the most active wearer of sunglasses anyway. Something about the shade they offered cut me off, made me feel I had been removed in some essential fashion from my life. I remember once, in college, riding the bus in Philadelphia, wearing a pair of round wire rims with green lenses — teashades, commonly known as John Lennon glasses, although with my long, dark, frizzy hair exploding outward as if I’d stuck my finger in a socket, I looked more like Joey Ramone. I was high, of course, which made removing myself desirable, like the external expression of an internal state. Two days later, Lennon was shot and killed outside his building in Manhattan, and the glasses took on a different resonance. I continued to wear them into the early 1990s; they even appear in the formal portrait from my wedding (what I call the Butch and Sundance shot), although it is my wife who is wearing them. Then, we arrived in California, and the glasses went into a drawer. It has been 20 years since I’ve seen them.
As to why I gave up sunglasses in California, the answer is simple: I didn’t want to be like everyone else. Shades are one of the tropes of the place, a bad joke, a visual cliché of coolness, or the illusion of coolness, that I meant to reject. Or no, not reject exactly, but rewire, retool, reconfigure to my sensibilities. To stand apart — this was an act of resistance, of resistance to Los Angeles, to its smooth surfaces and stereotypes. I’d been dragged to Southern California with reluctance; my heart (if it could be said to incline anywhere) tilted toward San Francisco, 380 miles up the coast. In part, I’d agreed to leave New York because of this proximity, although proximity is (always) relative — I might as well have been pining for the moon. What is it Einstein said? “When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.”
PHOTO BY BRENT HUMPHRIES
Something similar, of course, applies to distance, which depends on our ability, or willingness, to bridge the gaps. During my first decade in Los Angeles, I made it to the Bay Area once or twice a year, short day or weekend trips, occasionally to see friends but mostly for work. I went back East three times as much. Which landscape, then, was truly closer, San Francisco or New York? The one I would never get to or the one I had left behind? Shade, shades, valley of the shadow, like the ghost traces of a person or a place. “This pretty white city,” Kerouac wrote in San Francisco Blues, “On the other side of the country / Will no longer be / Available to me.” It is no coincidence that what I liked most about Los Angeles in those years were the whispers, the echoes, those little bits of shade and light that reminded me of that other, more beloved, city to the north.
The whispers. And what were they? Some were small, as incidental as the patch of green concrete in front of St. Regis Liquors at Third and Orlando, around the corner from the apartment where my wife and I first lived. I loved that strip, 12 feet, maybe 18, which I associated with the City on the Bay. Or the eucalyptus on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, the bluff there, where I would walk and hang out on occasion, breathing it all in. With a mist from the Pacific blowing through the peeling branches, it was like a sense memory insinuating itself. At the same time, that mist carried its own resonances, especially in its interaction with the light. “One of its most common features,” the artist Robert Irwin once explained to the writer Lawrence Weschler, “is the haze that fractures the light, scattering it in such a way that on many days the world almost has no shadows. Broad daylight — and, in fact, lots and lots of light — and no shadows. Really peculiar, almost dreamlike … I love walking down the street when the light gets all reverberant, bouncing around like that, and everything’s just humming in your face.”
PHOTO BY FREDRIK BRODÉN
That’s among the ways I’ve come to think about it also: a coastal sunlight, blue gone pale with whiteness, yet laced — especially in the early morning or late afternoon — with a fuzziness that blurs the sharpest edges, eclipsing the line between waking and dreaming, between the physical and the ethereal. There is, of course, another version of this light, bleaker and more relentless — a midday glare in which the buildings bleach white against the sidewalks, reflecting nothing back except the starkness of the desert from which the city has risen and into which it must someday fall. This is why so many people wear sunglasses in Los Angeles, which makes me think about Mick Jagger. “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me,” he sings in “Rocks Off,” a terrific lyric, one of my favorites, and perfect for Southern California, not because of the dullness of the sunshine but because of how it bores down into us.
I remember looking for patches of shade,
of which there were too few, and those depending
on a kind of civic chronology.
How old was the neighborhood?
How long since it had been built?
I felt gutted by that light, drained by it, as if all the liquid in my body had been burned away. One afternoon, I walked from my apartment to a friend’s place in West Hollywood; it was summer, and the sidewalks were empty and — in my memory, anyway — silent and bereft. I remember looking for patches of shade, of which there were too few, and those dependent on a kind of civic chronology. How old was the neighborhood? How long since it had been built? Was that the day I learned to look to the trees, to their height and density, as a way of reading a community? Some streets were lushly leaved with fig and pepper trees, others barely so. I moved along the sidewalks as if in a semiconscious state. I no longer recall if my body cast a shadow, although when I re-imagine the scene (as I am doing now) it does not. The experience made me feel ethereal, as if I weren’t fully here. There is a line I would discover later, Peter Bogdanovich quoting Orson Welles: “The terrible thing about L.A. is that you sit down, you’re 25, and when you get up you’re 62.” I’m wrestling with that now, 54 years old, having lived here for (yes) a quarter of a century, and yet, it was on that day, in the midst of that perambulation, that I understood what Welles meant. The light, the shade, the passage of time, the way everything doubles back on itself in a place such as this, where the quality, the lucency, of air and space provokes the illusion that we are living in an eternal present tense. “Nothing dies in California; it is the land of non-death,” the Central California poet William Everson, also known as Brother Antonius, wrote in the 1980s. “… California is so new that you can almost say that nothing has died here compared to the rest of the world.”
PHOTO BY GRAPHICDESIGNMACHINE
Everson is describing California as a human settlement — or even more, as an American one. The newness is a function of demographics, immigration, westward expansion, Manifest Destiny. And yet, even that is not as it once was, because as the present bleeds into the future, history cannot but accrue. Not only that, but history is another relative: What of the pre-American history, Mexican, Native American? What of the geologic, or natural, history?
“This is the land of three seasons,” Mary Austin wrote about the Mojave in The Land of Little Rain in 1903. “From June on to November it lies hot, still, and unbearable, sick with violent unrelieving storms; then on until April, chill, quiescent, drinking its scant rain and scanter snows; from April to the hot season again, blossoming, radiant and seductive.” The movement she traces is the opposite of Everson’s non-death, a cycle that transcends human time.
PHOTO BY FREDRIK BRODÉN
The same, I want to say, is also true of light and shade. Contrast, resolution, sharp distinction, as if the world had been captured in an Ansel Adams photograph. Adams spent time, like Austin, in the Mojave, as well as Nevada, the Taos Pueblo, Yosemite. It was there, at Half Dome in 1927, essayist John D’Agata tells us, that he had the breakthrough that transformed his work. “[W]ith only one picture left,” D’Agata writes, “Adams takes a risk. He allows himself to ‘revisualize’ the scene. [His word.] He places over his lens a heavy red filter that immediately darkens the sky, transforms it even darker than the cliff face itself, so that an abyss opens up on the left side of the cliff, as if the brooding shelf of Half Dome has torn straight through it like a cleaver made of light, terrifying and bright, a threat to everything that is not there.”
MY LIFE, DEFINED IN STRIPES OF
SHADE AND LIGHT,
THAT MASK MY UNCERTAINTIES.
MY LIFE, AN EXPRESSION OF SOME SORT OF WILL
AGAINST THE BACKDROP OF
A LANDSCAPE AS
IMPLACABLE AND VOLATILE AS ANY I HAVE EVER KNOWN.
Everything that is not there. What he means by that is: us. In the photo as Adams made it, the contrasts are so sharp that the rock appears to have been carved out of the sky. It is daunting, awesome, nearly abstracted, a piece of the natural world rendered not so much unnatural as inaccessible, in the sense that it exists beyond us, that it does not speak our language or relate to our expanse of time. “God Godself,” the essayist Nancy Mairs has called this, a reckoning with the world, the universe, as almost entirely outside the bounds of conscious comprehension, which is what gives faith its edge. “The need,” Mairs insists, “to reduce God to a person having mental states with which we are familiar — desire, anger, retribution (but seldom, alas, a sense of humor) — does God little service and ourselves even less. We would do better to stand before God in silence, allowing the Holy to open to us without our definition or direction. Only God can say what God is. We can only allow ourselves to be taught.”
PHOTO BY FREDRIK BRODÉN
Mairs is right, although I am not a believer, at least not on her stringent terms. I accept the mystery, even as I also look for signs and symbols, for ways to place myself in the world. Twenty-five years ago, I moved to Southern California, knowing nothing; now I have gone gray, have had children and watched them grow up, and still, in some essential sense, know nothing, having felt time move through me like an afternoon. An afternoon … or no, not even, for what is 25 years but a nanosecond, a drop in the bucket — although not, of course, to me. My life, defined in stripes of shade and light, stark distinctions that mask my uncertainties. My life, an expression of some sort of will against the backdrop of a landscape as implacable and volatile as any I have ever known. Sometimes, when I am driving, I pass from light to shade so quickly that it momentarily leaves me blinded. That’s a different form of faith, I suppose, faith in chance or serendipity, faith that I won’t run into anyone, that my eyes will eventually adjust. And eventually they do, and eventually I see again, until the next striation switches on and off and the cycle repeats. Sunglasses might help, or so I’m often told, but that’s the coda of another story. Or maybe I’m just throwing shade. In any case, it’s been so long since I last owned a pair that they would, I must imagine, feel unnatural, in a landscape where the sunshine bores the daylights out of me.
PHOTO BY FREDRIK BRODÉN