Snow on a Palm Tree
2017 bled into 2018 with little change or relief. No hierophantic answers, no blazing beacon of light to lead the confused from an enveloping darkness. In December of 2016, people said, Enough with this year and its endless election campaign, the death of David Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen and so many others. Give us 2017 and remove this useless carcass. However, having gotten their wish, by the following November, the same people hobbled about shell-shocked. Oh, rescue us 2018, for 2017 was an insult to everything we thought and held sacred.
How does it feel to have one's soul, spirit, and hopes defiled then sold to the lowest bidder? Just ask 2017.
In parts of Southern California, wildfires razed and ravaged the tail end of that year. The nauseating, sickly sweet incense of the previous months burning down to an ash so monolithic it blotted out the sky, poisoned our brains with headaches, and fouled lungs until we in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties became imprisoned behind green N95 particle masks--strangers to each other and ourselves. The sense of impending doom in December pressing so hard as to quash even the falsest of holiday cheer imposed upon citizens both receptive and indifferent.
I languished in a post-Christmas trough of unrealized dreams and vague unfocused bitterness, then floated in the post-New Year's void of early January. Some therapists claim that the stretch between Christmas and January 10th is the most depressing time of the year. The amount of suicides and overdoses rises, while octogenarians and nonagenarians who have been clinging to life for reasons swallowed deep into their souls, often relax, let go, allow themselves to no longer exist.
I had a sibling's wedding on the East Coast. The ceremony occurred, but without my attendance. A blizzard replete with frigid temperatures snarled all traffic. Thousands of flights cross-country to New York and major hubs canceled on a Thursday amid the snow storm of this teenage century. Hundreds more flights for Friday canceled preemptively, despite LaGuardia and JFK reopening by then. Panic and delays on Saturday as two jets collided on JFK's tarmac.
We've become inured to the news footage of beleaguered travelers attempting to sleep in the harsh, fluorescent ghost-light of airports. They wait in distress for a reprieve, some tiny slot on an overbooked flight to be mashed and wedged into so they can reach their destination days late, puzzled as to the point of their whole expedition.
It all crystallized with the stunned Florida man looped on cable news saying, “I've never seen snow on palm trees before.” Then the report two days later that a foot of snow had fallen on the Sahara Desert. Outlandish. Unprecedented. A sign.
Everything came rushing too fast. In the South and in the East, they had no time to imagine the blizzard, while on the West Coast we had no time to prepare for the wildfires, the toxic smoke, the power outages, followed by deadly mudslides that killed twenty-one people in the town of Montecito. A place known for Oprah and Ellen, and for Hollywood celebrity mansions, yet this disaster took the unknown and those without wealth, much less wealth managers. Biblical Book of Revelation shit in an era of waning belief. The progression toward chaos accelerating beyond human response time.
At a certain point our consciousness shuts down. In the 24/7 breaking news culture, brain filtering is an adaptive strategy, mental blinders to keep us from being overwhelmed with stressful information: earthquakes, tornadoes, distant wars, mass shootings, tsunamis, flooding, nuclear threats. Enough!
As I staggered through a psychic fog, and in Southern California, the literal fog of early January, I noticed others had not quite emerged from their shells either. They lingered in that early morning state between dreaming and full awareness where the real and imaginary blend. And we were among the lucky ones: still breathing, with our homes unravaged.
I discerned that those first days of the new year, and perhaps January itself, serve as a collective hangover for the past year endured. Of course we make bold, foolhardy plans for our future, but they are trapped in aspic, to remain unrealized as we dig through the high pressure system flattened down on us, relentless as the surface gravity of Jupiter.
At some point in this decade, I decided laughter was the key to retaining youth—at least spiritual if not physical. Tears are important too, but the sadness of childhood doesn't desert us as we grow older, it merely shifts into other pockets of our consciousness.
My father had a broad, crazy sense of humor. In so many ways we were opposites, but humor bonded us. If we could laugh over disagreements and political opinions, then we could continue on unfazed by our differences. During his late seventies, his wit dried up and deserted him. Deserted me. Suddenly everything became serious, black or white, good or evil. My attempts at sarcasm or irony were met with derision, accusation, and sometimes prolonged silence. I had met cloistered monks with incredible senses of humor at a Benedictine monastery perched high above the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, California. They remembered the outer world they once inhabited and joked with me about rock musicians or ridiculous presidents. I remember thinking, maybe it's not so bad shunning society in later life to shave your head and wear brown robes, if you can chant as only monks can—haunting and ethereal--and if you can still laugh.
I spent nights at bars in my thirties, failing to become an alcoholic. Due to a lucky break involving stomach sensitivity, I couldn't hold more than two or three drinks. However, I enjoyed these hideaways. Not the flashy sports bars, nor the bleak hole-in-the-wall ones with dirty glasses and the whiff of constrained violence waiting to be unleashed, but in the bars that serve as men's clubs for those who will never afford or be accepted at a men's club. Women do appear and brighten these places, but the male/female ratio can be three to one.
Such bars often double as waiting rooms, an interstitial space between the previous life of job, family and societal normality, and death. Some men may inhabit this waiting room for thirty years; others totter on the barstool for their final months. The gathered wait to receive nightly benediction from the bartender who will later hear their booze-soaked confession. Near closing time, squint and spot the angels with molting wings--unable to take flight anymore. They embrace the holy fools and may even rescue certain grizzled phantoms to a temporary earthly heaven warmed by their hot breath and night sweats.
The low lights, ancient jukebox melodies, and dark wood interiors weave their own seductive charm. Why be lonely in your own home when you can dissipate in slow motion among strangers on the same path? We are all dying, slowly hopefully, and may as well choose the right surroundings to pass the time in.
I used to joke with any bar regulars who would tolerate me. Some found me amusing while others remained grim-faced and stoic. I realized that laughter is a loss of control, and in elderly people can be a hair's breadth away from a coughing spasm. Perhaps it is tied in to oxygen and life itself. That at a certain age a man dare not laugh, for with each ha! he is losing the precious air that sustains him, the laughter becoming a gasp. A last gasp.
So I've tried to reconsider my father's seriousness as he lived on until his late eighties without mirth or humor. Implacable, almost unreachable. Even his tendency to lecture at length like a university professor worn away to cryptic phrases. Maybe he just wanted to ration his words, speech representing a lifeline, to live longer. The average life expectancy for a male in America in 2013 was roughly seventy-eight-years old. He beat that by ten years, but sacrificed conversation. Do we all receive a fixed amount of utterances at birth: ninety-million words, a hundred thousand laughs, and fifty thousand coughs?
Snow on Florida's palm trees, ash on Californian palm trees, and the silence of fathers. These are anomalies we may encounter. Superventions not bound by the dictates of logic.
I sacrificed a preoccupation with unhealthy pursuits in the quest for a decent lifespan. Who knows what our relatives, our parents must give up to endure in the brittle-boned, winter years? Can we understand other people's motivations when we often can't account for our own blunders and miscalculations?
Ask me anything, except to explain the meandering trail of idiocy I have hacked through life's forest to lead me here.
About the Author: Max Talley's novel Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow was published in 2014. Talley's fiction and essays have appeared in Del Sol Review, Fiction Southeast, Gold Man Review, Hofstra University - Windmill, Thoughtful Dog, and The Opiate, among others. He received a best fiction award at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 2007, and currently teaches a summer writing workshop there. For more of his work click here.