Mike Powell’s column is about living in Arizona.
Driving around for groceries one afternoon I encountered an interesting AM radio announcement for homeschooling. Not any particular method or approach to homeschooling, but for homeschooling in general. Curious about what other forms of isolation such a station might advertise, I listened further.
Following the announcement came a string of foggy, sentimental music that the station, 690 KCEE, refers to as “pop classics.” On AM 690, you might hear a teen idol like Perry Como followed by early-seventies soft rock, or “Earth Angel” followed by a highly polished country ballad—Don Williams singing “I Believe in You” or “I’m Just a Country Boy,” maybe—music unified not by style or time but by the internal suggestion that hardship was over and the rest was dream.
This was September or October, months that in most parts of the country signal the turn from summer to fall but in Southern Arizona mean continued triple-digit temperatures paired with the collective fatigue of things having been this way since May. I had recently moved to Arizona from New York, an interesting place I always hated. I was nesting, staying in more, reconciling myself happily to a city where there wasn’t much to do.
The station became a habit. I started having cocktail hours—sometimes with my now-wife, sometimes just with my cat—stirring martinis and listening to 690, looking at patches of sunset coming through the trees. Our bay window faced a street that was almost always empty. Across the street was a little art gallery. I never went in, but my mother did twice, in two separate years, and said that both times she found the attendant asleep.
Radio waves travel better in dry air. Something about principles I don’t understand. I pictured a chrome brain in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, beaming this medicine out to our little air-conditioned pods through vast stretches of empty heat. Harv, a Tucson resident and contributor to TopRetirements.com, notes that in Tucson you’re usually just walking from one air-conditioned box to another and can always get a car control to start your air-conditioning remotely, if you like. Some nights, my wife and I would drive around the empty streets longer than we needed to, 690 on the radio, like ambassadors from a still-waking world.
As someone who lives in continuous unrest, I have always loved silence. When I was nine, I became obsessed with the afterlife, which my mother treated with cassette tapes of guided meditation and synthesizer music. In my early twenties, I took a lot of heroin, which didn’t make me feel good or bad so much like a great emptiness had opened inside of me. I liked so-called minimal art and reading Samuel Beckett and the little linguistic contradiction behind the phrase nothing happened. My wife says I am especially reliable in nursing homes and hospitals.
When I started listening to AM 690, I was just short of thirty years old and had begun to get the uncanny hunch that I could spend the rest of my life—no matter how long—looking back on what I’d already lived. No more new material, just a matter of reviewing the tape. I had already been given so much, I thought; it would take at least twice as long to sort it out. Sitting in my armchair and listening to this haunted, senile music wasn’t just cocktail hour but a rehearsal for death.
I recently just had a second son and have less room in my life for death than ever. The same goes for my children, who seem to view what we call relaxation as nothing more than interference to discovery.
In his book Johannes Brahms: A Biography, the author Jan Swafford writes of the composer’s inspiring, enviable naps. “After his lunch of goulash or roast beef or pork with a glass or two of beer or a Viertel—quarter liter—of wine, Brahms might walk to the Café Heinrichshof across from the Opera, to have his Mokka and read the newspapers on sticks, then snooze for a while as tourists gawked at the famous beard in the window, motionless as a statue.”
But Brahms wasn’t a good sleeper, not exactly. At least one researcher has drawn a poetic connection between the composer’s famous lullaby and circumstantial evidence of apnea. I’d buy it, at least on the count that great art has a way of making you feel like it’s the only thing between you and the beyond. Had he been born a hundred years later in the high plains of Texas, he might’ve written a Don Williams song.
Then again, there are so many other reasons to love Brahms, like all his beautiful, tempered letters to his mentor’s wife, Clara Schumann, or the way the winds come in at the beginning of the second movement of the fourth symphony like fog rolling in over the bay, or how he reportedly went to a bar in Vienna called the Red Hedgehog almost every afternoon to have a meal and a cigar. Predictability is unromantic but it has a way of sneaking up on you.
Mike Powell has written for Grantland, Pitchfork, the Ringer, Rolling Stone, and other places in print and online. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.