People who know me well have heard me talk about what it was like when we first moved out of Manhattan and into the woods. One of the first nights here in this cottage, I woke in the dark, startled—I was having one of those, “where am I?” moments when you wake from sleep and are disoriented. I reached my right hand out to touch the wall but the wall wasn’t there and then I realized, right, we don’t live in that apartment anymore, we live in a cottage in the woods and the walls are father apart here—what added to my terror was when I realized that not only was the wall not right there but the neighbors weren’t right there, either. Because on the other side of the walls of this cottage are the woods—fabled places from fairy tales where children disappear and witches try to eat them.
In those first six months I suffered what I like to call my Upstate Ego Death. ‘I used to be somebody,’ I walked around thinking all the time. ‘What if I die here, no one will know—or care.’
I grew up in deserts—I was born in the San Fernando Valley but when I was five my parents moved us to Saudi Arabia, where my dad would be flying a certain jet of which the Saudi royal family had purchased a small fleet. We lived in an expat community on the edge of town—several streets with identical houses on each side all surrounded by one large cinder block wall, over which stretched the Sahara Desert. You could stand on the Coke crate left there for just that purpose and see the tan sand stretch out for miles. Occasionally the sound of bells would jingle from across the distance and soon a dark low mound would appear far off—a Bedouin tribe riding camels from somewhere way over there to somewhere way over there.
When I was seven we moved back to the states and landed in the Mojave Desert where my dad continued to work for Lockheed—something about aerospace companies and barren places. I guess the open air is good for that industry.
We lived on the edge of a new group of homes—this would have been 1970—and at the end of our road, over one of those old highway railings you’d see in black and white movies, lay the Mojave, with tumbleweeds and junipers, tamarisk trees and sand dunes. We would play out there in the summer—my brothers both took up motorcross and would ride the dunes with their bikes. Ocassionaly you’d find a horny toad in the backyard, tumbleweeds blew past out front.
There’s some truth to the archetype of the desert rat—a common nickname for folks who live in the desert. A desire to be alone, a need for open space and wide vistas. Finding pleasure in solitude.
When I first moved to Manhattan from California, I remember stopping in the middle of an intersection to look up the avenue—I realized I hadn’t seen a long distance in awhile and it made me homesick for space and the satisfying loneliness that can come from living somewhere with fewer people. A car horn blared and I moved on.
The woods are something like deserts. When we first moved here people in the city would ask, “Have you met a bunch of really great people?” And, back then, before we had met all these really great people, I would say, “Well, not really; there’s a reason people move to the woods—they want to be alone.”
The word distance is inherently poetic—the two S sounds give it a sensuality, and the contrast between the firm di—and the soft stan—it’s a beautiful word. In addition to meaning the measurement between things or people—it can also mean someone who is or has grown emotionally cold. Then there’s the saying, to go the distance…to persist, to follow through or go all the way to completion.
I’ve been thinking of all the people whose ambitions have been thwarted by this crisis—the kids just about to open in their first Broadway show, the painter whose work was going to be shown in a hip gallery for the first time, TV shows that aren’t going into production, authors whose books aren’t being released. Humans are ambitious—some more than others, yes. But, think of all the ambitions being thwarted right now. Huge waves of frustration and disappointment rising up from earth.
I referred to the deserts I had lived in as barren places—this isn’t exactly true. Deserts contain a rich, diverse web of life—and the energy of a desert can be intense; the wind that came through Lancaster, where I grew up, was powerful and, like the famous winds around the world—Scirocco, Santa Ana, the mistral in France—it brought with it a mood that could change an entire town. Trade winds have moved people around the globe for centuries.
When Bobby and I first met, we spent the first year and a half of our relationship driving around the country, we crossed the continent 5 times, each time taking a different route, the northern, the middle, diagonal, the southern route, zig zag—on one trip, we drove from Oregon to Mexico. It was an incredible time of love and discovery. They say that while driving is one of the best times for people to communicate intimately, because you can say and reveal things to each other sitting side-by-side that you wouldn’t if you were looking at each other, face-to-face.
I have loved the two big cities I have lived in—LA has my heart forever and NYC made me the man I am today. But thinking of those long drives with Bobby, our big shaggy dog in the back, I remember the beautiful, endless sorrow when crossing the plains, the low marbled mountains of the badlands, the thrill of crossing over the Rockies and seeing the extraordinary sculpture of Utah.
Distances are what I remember most.