Rocks ‘R’ Us

Rocks ‘R’ Us

The known universe, for all the cosmological head-scratching it engenders, is essentially a very large, mostly empty void in which rocks of various sizes are suspended. I mean, rocks are the theme. Yes, there are science-fictional doodads out there; quasars, gamma-bursts, binary systems, a gaping, galaxy-starved maw called the Boötes Void (if you can imagine). But as our homely and expensive deep space probes make their lumbering way through our solar system, looking eagerly (if stiffly) around at the remote scenery, it’s basically rocks as far as the eye can see. Further, even. Of course our Earth is a rock, which is belittling if you’re in the wrong mood. All our human prehistory and history, all our important and heartbreaking wars and cataclysms and revolutions in thinking and Alexanders the Great, the eons-long morphing of the Trilobite into the Tax Attorney; everything that has ever Happened, effectively, has happened on this rock. And it’s not a very large rock, as these things go. Our Everything is twenty five-thousand miles around the middle. You call that a planet? It sounds more like an interminable road trip.

But our rock is special; an anomaly, as near as we can tell. It’s hot and roiling on the inside, wet and cool on the outside, and wrapped delicately in a shawl of atmosphere that makes her look positively coquettish from, say, the annoyed and painfully chapped perspective of Mars. And thanks to all the subsurface thermal confusion our Earth is a world-sized piñata stuffed with the most dazzling candy.

aptly named azurite

aptly named azurite

By arrangement, my pal Eddie swung by last Sunday. My daughter and I hopped in our car and followed him out to the Gem Faire at the Earl Warren show grounds. He was eager to walk us through the wonderland he’d adopted. We pulled into the parking lot and joined a thin line of stragglers making their way to the giant flying saucer that is Earl Warren’s grandly titled Exhibition Building. I’d more or less gone along for the ride, as is often the case on the road to Damascus, expecting a quaint oddball experience to match the implacably strange Earl Warren environs themselves. I’d seen gems and stuff before, turquoise and coral and the dust-covered geode in the benighted corner of a roadside curio shop. Outside the flying saucer a small sun canopy sheltered several long tables piled with ropes of rough-hewn minerals in all the peaceably mad hues of the inner earth, beads and stones and chunks of matter like pieces of a rainbow dusted with powdered sugar, all these strings of rock erupting copiously out of shallow plastic tubs, draped like seaweed over the edges. Hands in pockets, I glanced with bemused judgment at the charming Gem Faire Folk gathered round and pawing the stuff, and in an instant had joined them.

A Murmuring, Mineral-Maddened Mob

Entering the cool cavern of the Earl Warren Flying Saucer, one is already swept off ones pins by the vaulted, curvaceous ceiling, and sense of having walked willingly into an edifice normally associated with jittery abduction scenarios. We walked in from the comparative quietude of the show grounds outside into a hubbub of bustling stone-age commerce. The immense discoidal cavern divided longitudinally into 5 or 6 long rows of dealer/collectors in their booths, the various species of Gem Faire Vendor as jarringly displayed as the piles of rock decorating their traveling shopfronts.

Orange calcite. They don't taste like they should

Orange calcite. They don’t taste like they should. And neither do Gem Faire security folk appreciate the curiosity

There were the inevitable bald tat-folk with their chiseled painted arms and mineralized occipital ridges; graying soft-spoken southwestern sorts in bola ties and safari-skirts, quietly and passionately explaining the chatoyancy of their polished kyanite; and naturally the hyper-kinetic rock preachers with topiary beards and earnest eyebrows, holding forth with missionary fervor on the metaphysics of vibratory healing.

Some of the booths looked like full blown mineral mini-marts, with pricey-looking tiered displays and show-offy signage, others were charmingly low-key, shallow cardboard trays filled lovingly with unvarnished azurite pebbles so heart-meltingly, affectingly blue they test one’s hard-won faith in an accidental universe. Hundreds of exhibitors, dealers and self-taught gemologists paced with calm or canny expressions behind displays of crazy merchandise that in a previous epoch had been buried deep in the world’s feverish gut. Aziz, a gentle giant with a squinty kid’s grin of contentment, strode happily about his lair (Elegant Healing), a jaw-dropping display of large format natural wonder, beautifully displayed on several large tables like objects fallen from space; tetrahedral quartz obelisks large enough to stare through, gorgeous polished crystal spheres one would hoist and gaze into if one could only get past the amiable but wall-sized Aziz, rosy clustered amethyst points, light-throwing crystal skulls, grimacing and fiery even by the wan fluorescence of the distant overheadfixtures.

Baltic Honey

There were dealers who worked mostly with jewelry, but jewelry that Zales wouldn’t know how to market; rings and pendants and bracelets featuring inset chunks of lushly colored rock from an underworld most of us don’t ever think about. I stopped in front of one booth (Liliana International) that displayed finely featured Russian Matryoshka Dolls, ornate lacquered boxes, and most freakily (to me, anyway), jewelry made from lustrous, irregularly-shaped gobs of amber; fossilized tree resin. It turned out that this was all Baltic Amber, prized in all the world. The Baltic Sea region is crowded with the stuff, the leavings of an enormous ancient pine forest that poured out its lifeblood in the Jurassic and lies in repose under the Baltic seafloor, the ossified honey-colored globules bobbing to the surface and clacking ashore in the hours following a storm. A forest under the sea floor is just a wondrous thing. A pleasant but slightly dour Ukrainian couple, Engineers by training, moved slowly about behind the display, answering questions with furrowed brows and reflexively saying “May I help you” whenever anyone slowed. The little blobs of amber were everywhere, like honey droplets, many of them encasing tiny embarrassed Jurassic bugs in eternally splayed attitudes of accidental amber entrapment. I stared for a long time. “May I help you?” Finally I remarked to the gentleman behind the counter that he had a lot of amber. He looked at me with a worried expression, saying finally. “I am an amber dealer.”

Rocky Road Good

While browsing one booth clustered with a nicely displayed mixed bag of crystals, gems and minerals (The Original Way), a young couple approached, she in what looked to be a deerskin mini-skirt. Just sayin’. She was admiring a large, layered piece of mica, and asked the young man running the booth what healing properties mica possessed, a question he answered with a striking genuineness. When they left I spoke to the owner, Jeremy Massel, a young earnest guy with a tasteful rock hanging from his neck, a thatch of black hair and a slightly wonderstruck expression. “As a kid I would pick up rocks from the ground. ‘Ooh, a shiny rock!’, you know? I once picked up a rock and could feel it vibing in my hand. Later I got interested in the healing properties and the metaphysics.” When Jeremy was later casting about for what he might want to do to actually earn a living, he remembered his love of rocks and crystals. The rest is history. Or geology. His display and selection is one of the most colorful and varied in the Gem Faire, and he is psyched to be talking about it, to be sharing about the whole thing, his dealings with mines and miners, his growing knowledge of gemology and geology, his work bringing beautiful and resonant stuff to light from under the Earth’s crust. He travels up and down the state spreading the mineral love, boxing his rocks, throwing them into the truck and hitting the road. He’s wandered as far afield as Quartzsite, Arizona, a veritable Mecca for the gem-obsessed. So how’s it going? “It’s been a process,” he says. “And it’s the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done.”

Pyrite and the Power of Limits

Eddie wants to show us the final few displays in the other building, the adjacent Warren Hall. I’ve known Ed for a very long time, since we were teens, and he has never been mistaken for a flinty-eyed rationalist. But he is his own brand of rationalist, an elliptical rationalist, say, and can hold forth on the ineffable with a grounded eloquence that will turn on the lights. I can’t count the times over the years he and I and his brother David have yammered excitedly on about this or that phenomenon or implausibility, always circling back to ground our questions and suppositions in the actual. Because plain vanilla Actual has, so far, outstripped our attempts to even begin to get our arms all the way around it, it is so freaking immense and filigreed.

For all that, I was a little caught off guard when Eddie began showing up at group gatherings increasingly festooned in amethyst and dangling crystals, more often than not producing a prize spear of quartz from his jeans pocket and frankly describing its effects. “When I moved to my new house, I unpacked some crystals that had been given to me as gifts years earlier. I’d always appreciated their natural beauty, but I didn’t really believe any of the mumbo jumbo. I went to the Gem Faire out of mild curiosity. I bought a larger quartz crystal there. I discovered that when I held onto it for a while, I very much had a feeling of it amplifying my thoughts and personal power, bringing clarity, focusing my intention.”

These primoridal creatures once haunted your science text. Now you can buy them like marbles

The primordial trilobite once haunted your science text. Here they are profferred in boxes

In Warren Hall we were wrapping the afternoon. Stella found a demure little amethyst bracelet she adored, and Eddie surprised her with the crystalline geode she’d earlier been mooning over. Ed introduced us to an exhibitor named Dave, a friendly and grounded and uber-knowledgeable guy, surrounded in his space by some of the most intriguing and startlingly wondrous rocks and things I’d seen that day; piles of fossilized trilobites, Moqui Marbles (natural accretions of iron around singular grains of riverbed sand – iron pearls, basically), orange calcite as temptingly citrus as mandarin wedges on a summer day. And at the far end of the display a couple of geometrically perfect cubes of found crystal pyrite that look like they might’ve been machined. But they weren’t, they just grew that way. All of nature is, of course, an exercise in golden ratios, Fibonacci sequences and radial symmetry; a purely accidental Big Bang Bonanza underwritten by a seeming superstructure of reality-preceding math. Too much woo-woo? Take a long look at a head of Romanesco broccoli and think hard. I point out the “wtf” pyrite cubes to Eddie. “I’m trying to allow the analytical and scientific aspect of myself to be open to the idea that consciousness came first, before forms and systems. I’m open to the idea that intelligence of some sort exists all the way down at the molecular, atomic, and sub-atomic level.”

Okay, then! We know the score. Ghosts? Nope. The useful vibrations of a silicon-oxygen tetrahedral atomic latticework you can keep in your pocket? Naw. Subatomic proto-consciousness. Pshaw! An exploding singularity from which all reality sprang in a millionth of a second? HELL yeah! Now that’s science! Look, whatever may be troubling you, daub it with a light coat of empiricism and watch the clouds part. Show the people a graduated cylinder and they will believe what they are asked to believe. It’s a fact. You want a real flight of fancy? Never mind the Boötes Void. Aim your peepers a little lower. You won’t believe what’s down there.

Shave the Earth! Redux!

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Another Earth Day come to chastise us; a great pageant of patchouli-scented goodwill and self-congratulation. And what a sight! Several acres of innocent grass trampled and strewn with non-biodegradable trash, gangs of roving dreadlocks, bean bag jugglers, admirably unbathed artisans, glassy-eyed botanists, an enormous blinking music main stage with the evident carbon footprint of a leviathan, little electric cars sparkling in blanched, 13 billion-year-old sunlight. You have to plug them into smokestacks to charge the batteries, you know. Never mind.  This dumb rock has been turning forever, spat out of a hot singularity, drenched with steaming rain, then germs, then trilobites, then tax attorneys; this described without irony as an ‘ascent’. It just takes time. The heavens have seen all this before. We can’t Kill the Planet. It was stone dead once already and still patiently managed to turn a smattering of amino acids into Cate Blanchett. The Earth will be fine, dear little nincompoops. Our efforts to rescue Mother Earth are valiant and maybe even noble, our blinkered little race doomed, but lightly. Lightly doomed. Not our fault. It’s a cycle. You could kill the planet down to the bare bedrock and in 7 billion years you’ll have Ms. Blanchett again. Our little cars and plastic bottles aren’t sealing any doom but our own. Yes, eventually we’ll be shaved off like whiskers. We won’t go out with a bang or a whimper. We’ll just exhaustedly hit the road some eon hence, pack our recyclable bags and hemp pajamas and give it all back to the patient, seemingly emotionless bugs. They’ve been waiting. Every time we triumphantly step on one it goes down grinning.

Your Femur In the Next New World

Femur Fever

we shall continue to strive

Cosmologists, physicists and math wizards assure us we shouldn’t be here.  We so shouldn’t be here it can almost be persuasively argued that we aren’t here, that we are, in effect, virtual. And our brief, present reign is characterized by ingenious and puzzling bits of joinery.  Our touching terror of loose ends has us piecemealing all kinds of things so that no awkward termini need affront of discomfit us.  Sidewalks meet streets, travel for blocks and then stop, or as we say, end. But where a sidewalk ends you will likely find some bit of machined urban planning, some formed appurtenance, a thing.  The thing has a design function; it is to mitigate the ending of another thing of purpose. Walls meet floors, buildings conjoin, and the seam-centric work of human planners bespeaks a generalized belief that we have arrived and are determined to capably glue the parts together into a familiar whole.

Quantum Field Theory features, among other mild insanities, the snap-crackle-pop appearance of ‘virtual particles’ that appear very briefly and then annihilate. We are that, in our shirts, blouses and tasseled dress shoes, in our hats and coats and shorts and unembarrassed corduroy ensembles. The insensate scalability of Time makes our duration as individual Things infinitesimally, improbably brief. And yet we are materially indefatigable. The Law of the Conservation of Mass says that the quantity of matter is unchanging through all space and time; matter cannot be created or destroyed, only moved around; horses become apples, become clouds and comets, become wondrous drifting interstellar smoke. This means, among many other things, that the bone running down the middle of either of your thighs will specifically inhabit the roiling undercrusts of the Earth in eons to come, and thereafter the silent bell jar of deepest space and time. Sentence fragment. Your leg bone and Jayne Mansfield’s head will survive every cataclysm, every Big Bang yet to come. Hers is not such a special head but for the lore it wears like an especially difficult hat. It’s no more or less momentous than your leg bone. Your femur.

You will leave your consciousness behind. Strike that; reverse it. It will fly quietly out of your cooling carapace at the moment of your heat death, a warm tiny vapor gone to some unrealized quantum brane or maybe to the clear air over your living room carpet and the startled bridge players there. But your lovingly machined parts, in describable pieces or in atomized clouds of Stuff, will inhabit this Place. In 600,000 years your femur will be someplace on earth. Know. Is it true that infinite time naturally yields the realization of every single possibility? Intuitively it seems so. Given the fullness of time, then, you can stare up at the Crab Nebula, or cast your gaping glance to the general vicinity of idiotically distant z8_GND_5296, and know you are there in a thrilling present tense.

Gawp all you want at the Hubble Deep Field. * (sighs distractedly with something like frustration while biting a burnt veggie burger) * We awaken only very very very briefly and then are cast out into Everywhen. Why do we awaken? There are no purposeless moving parts in this machine. What is this for, cognition? The other animals procreate and eat and flee their adversaries without it. Why do we need it? Why awaken at all?  Is our immeasurable little snap of wakefulness the door we have to hurry through? I think it is.

Big Deal

Liz-1953

Okay, so the autumn sidewalks are littered with the crispy husks of the dead, these dumb survivalist earthworms. Darwin’s champions. They lay around like the fallen, as if there’s been a desperate and cinematic battle of some kind. In fact they were caught out in the sun. With the rain they came out to revel, and were trapped on the sidewalk when the cloudburst passed. These things that have survived every extinction event the exhausted cosmos could throw at them don’t have the sense to go home when the rain stops. There is clearly a mechanistic virtue in stupidity and self-abnegation. These guys preceded the dinosaurs and handily survived the Flood despite having not been invited aboard Noah’s Yacht. It would have taken them another three years just to make it up the gangplank, drowning everyone.  Our temporary perch atop the food chain is clearly more Sears-Roebuck than ‘what a piece of work is a man!’  If these crispy idiot worms can both precede and follow us, what good are we. Period.

On the bus the older woman regards with furtive, fleeting, desperately curious glances the baggy pants teen drooped like a weakened sunflower over his phone, his neck parallel with the floor as he smiles thinly at something on the little screen. We lavishly imagined but do not have rocket cars, nor moon bases. There was one jet pack at the LA Olympics. This is the actual future. We have supernaturally fabulous telephones. This says what needs to be said about us. What would moon bases have said? ‘Escape! Explore! Live! Climb You Sonofabitch!’ Our pouring the intellectual magic and firepower of the race into telephones says ‘Enough, already. We’re not going anywhere’.

Liz Taylor acted her ass off in Butterfield 8 and the Albee movie, a couple of for instances. In the end (in the middle, actually) she couldn’t act her way out of a moist paper bag and embarrassed us with her perfume commercial.  She doesn’t owe us anything and g*d rest her. But that heavily painted moment at the very end of National Velvet? When she catches up to Mickey Rooney and stands alongside him in that garish sunset? The long shot? The music blares shamelessly. That is what they should have sent on the now-interstellar Pioneer, our metalloid message in a bottle. Heartbreak should have been the keynote of that message. Not a golden LP with Brahms or whatever. Barely sufferable bittersweetness and heartbreak. Liz and Mickey, kids at sunset. And the horsey.

Sea birds drift with casual purpose above a dawnstruck ocean, like bugs. More languid, though. They screw and they eat. These are the kingdoms, animal and plant.  From dandelions to squid, we’re not the serfs, we’re the kings, all of us.  But let’s not wave our scepters too grandly. Screw and eat. It’s still glory.

An office complex is festooned with pink ribbons. Cancer Research Supported Here. The ribbons are our testimony.  Why do we cling? This eyeblink hardly merits all this art and chatter. This is likely only a staging area. We awaken, see that we’re awake, and are shown the door. The door is set in the ground. Then some time later we’re adrift in ancient space and maybe later still reconstituted into extragalactic flowers or monsters or bacteria. We’ll see each other again under another sun and not realize it.  As explained with heartbreak and gusto by Frankie in the Rodgers and Hart resurrection tune Where or When.

Diana Ross? What happened? Why did she sing Upside Down? Whence her mojo? ‘I Hear A Symphony’? ‘Where Did Our Love Go’? What the hell happened? In her disco period she couldn’t even keep time. Did we do this to her?  Her and Liz? Or was she all along riding on the wings of song with not much of her own to offer? When the songs died out from under her she fell, Icarus with big staring eyes. Do you know where you’re going to? Wasn’t it me who said nothing good’s gonna last forever?

a cloud of gnats in summer air

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a cloud of gnats in summer air
transfixed I watch them gather there
they do not spin and will not toil
these laggards make my blood to boil

night birds invade a fragrant clearing
their evensong offends my hearing
the pines a twilight belvedere
o humvee smash me out of here

a millipede, a leaping stag
the crawly one will make me gag
the other one I’ll tranquilize
and give him beveled glass for eyes

school of fish in a mountain lake
I pray thee lord their souls to take
I pray then give the flesh to me
I’ll slit them till there’s naught to see

the lord hath given us dominion
rear sight elevation pinion
trigger guard, extractor spring
lift up our hearts in firing.

a fox asleep in honeyed sun
awakens my vacation gun
the violets hearing no report
are painted by my day of sport

unlettered man on jungle path
I offer you a bubble bath
some Western Civ will salve your soul
and see you to the Super Bowl

a velvet dark has fallen full
as lovely as a tractor pull
the fire throws a wondrous light
that underscores your underbite

Let’s contemplate the vault of stars
and ravish all our candy bars
this night we dream, the world renews
a bear craps in our hiking shoes.