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Summer 2016

Buckets of Rain

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David L. Ulin

Rain Room,
Los Angeles County Museum of Art,
November 1, 2015–July 12, 2016.

The day El Niño pours into Los Angeles, my wife and I walk the dozen blocks to LACMA for an afternoon showing of Rain Room, an “immersive environment” of falling water built into a gallery space. Outside, the downpour begins before first light, falling hard along the gutters, clanging like buckshot against the aluminum awnings in the alley behind my bed. Rain. This is our obsession in California, creator and destroyer, Brahma and Shiva rolled into one. This is what we discuss, what we anticipate, although I can’t shake a certain skepticism, as if the storm will never come. I know the snowpack is past one hundred percent of normal, but what does that mean? One hundred percent of normal…such averages don’t compute for me. Even El Niño: I understand it’s a system, not a single squall, an ongoing condition like a chronic disease. Still, when the rain stops, around two, it feels like a reprieve. All morning, we’ve been laughing at the joke of it, seeing Rain Room on this day—to experience rain, to experience water, in a place where it normally (that word again) doesn’t come to ground. I love rain, even when it is artificial. I want to watch water lace the landscape, flood the streets and sidewalks like an apocalypse in slow motion, irrevocable and steady, not explosive like fire or earthquake but relentless anyway. This is why we worry over it, our denuded, saturated hills, the landslides and the mud. And yet, how dangerous can it be if we can see it happen, track the storm before it strikes? It’s difficult, I want to tell you, to feel frightened of what we know is coming, if only because this encourages the illusion that we are prepared.

That’s the promise of this afternoon, once the rain stops, sky clear with just the loosest filigree of clouds. There’s a bite to the air, whisper of January crispness, but the walk is bright and dry. Along the way, we discuss dinner, what time our daughter is likely to get home. Steady drip of the domestic, as lulling and insistent as the storm. Just another day, but this is not another day, this is the second workday of the New Year, and I am spending it (or part of it) away from work. I have recently left a job, which represents its own sort of tempest, although the decision belonged to me. In the days since, I’ve received some emails—two or three of them—asking if I have retired. Retired? This is not a term I recognize. Who retires at fifty-four, one kid in college and another about to go? I find the question irritating, as if it were an aching tooth I can’t stop probing, as if it were my top back molar on the right side, newly drilled and filled. This morning, I awakened in the rain-filled air with a dull throb in the root like a sinus headache, exacerbated, I imagine, by the precipitation. The discomfort sits mostly below the surface, but it asserts itself each time my foot lands hard against the pavement, like a concussion grenade. I am a walker in the city, so what does it mean if my routine resets as pain? Perhaps that, for the moment, it is not routine.

Still, isn’t this what I want, for the ordinary to recast itself as extraordinary, for the forms to shatter and to fall? Isn’t that the point of rain, that it blurs the edges, erases them? We can’t control it, can only wait for it to pass. Or, at least, we can’t control it in the world. Inside the Rain Room, it’s a different matter, as I learn once we arrive. Our tickets are for three-thirty, but fifteen minutes beforehand, there are already twenty people clustered at the entrance, all of us in boots and raincoats or, in my case, the scarred leather jacket, molded to the curve of my shoulders and my elbows, that I have worn for the last thirty years. Once, I gave this jacket to my daughter; she was thirteen, and entering what we both imagined as a rocker phase. But it was too beat-up for her, too tattered, zipper broken, cuffs as torn and frayed as a lyric from the Rolling Stones. After a year or so, in which I don’t believe she ever put it on her body, she gave the jacket back. One of my favorite pictures of the two of us (a series, really, three shots in quick sequence) was taken at the Exploratorium in San Francisco; my daughter couldn’t be older than eleven. We are sitting in an enormous wooden kitchen chair, so big that it is out of scale, she dressed in tights and a plaid skirt and me wearing my jacket; as the images progress, one to the next, we shift from staring straight ahead to tickling to a full-blown hug. My daughter and I aren’t big on public displays of affection, which is one reason I like these photographs so much. They tell me something about how at ease we must have felt that day. Yes, and this is also why I am glad to have the jacket back, because of the comfort it affords, the reassurance, because of how it fits the angles of my body like a layer of skin. It is dark brown, and underneath it I wear a Henley and a dark blue hoodie —my winter uniform, which has not changed in any real way since I was my daughter’s age.

I’m thinking about continuity here, although the truth is I’m a little at loose ends. Discombobulated, not quite working, at the museum in the middle of the afternoon. This is why those questions of retirement bother me, because on a day such as this, they carry a resonance, a weight. Partly, it’s the weather: earlier, staring as thick ropes of water flooded the front garden, I felt as if I never wanted to go outside again. There is, don’t get me wrong, solace in that, safe and dry inside my dining room, looking out through casement windows, cup of coffee in my hand. I never enjoyed winter until I moved to California; in New York, I recall it mostly as a miserable blur. But continuity? This is another term I no longer seem to recognize. Each morning, I face an unconstructed blankness, all the possibilities available to me. I promise myself I will get organized, but most days it washes away. I feel time dripping through my fingers like water from a drainpipe, like water from the sky. Three weeks, it’s only been three weeks, and yet I could imagine it extending forever, endless string of days with nothing to fill them, no activity more urgent, no requirement more pressing, than to watch the rain.

On line, we shift and mumble, adjust our weight from foot to foot. Before we are allowed to enter, a guard offers a few guidelines: Move slowly, no sudden gestures, or you will get soaked. Dark clothing can be a problem; the sensors do not always pick it up. I am having second thoughts now, in my jacket and my hoodie—one more irony, to have sidestepped the real storm only to risk saturation by an invented one. Then we are inside. The room is square, devoid of light except for one bright spot angled in the corner, framing everyone in silhouette. In the middle, a matrix of grillwork on floor and ceiling, water falling in tight sheets. There are too many ticket-holders to participate at the same time, so the guard organizes us in groups. I am in the second, or the third, no matter; what this means is that initially I watch. People drift through the space like ghosts, like shadows, stepping lightly to stay dry. The water ebbs and flows to accommodate their presence, falling around but not on them, as if it were a curtain or a shield. I keep this in mind when it is my turn, extending an arm to prime the censors, walking as deliberately as I can. Something about these small steps turns my attention inward, as if I were occupying a kind of waking dream.

A waking dream? Yes, no, not really —the crush is too great for the fantasy to hold. I am often by myself when I am dreaming, but this Rain Room holds so many of us that, where we cluster, the water becomes patchy, disappears. We are drawn, or so it appears, toward the light, although I wish there were no light at all. Or maybe a muted backglow, enough to find a passage in the torrent, but without seeing one another’s faces, the boundaries of the walls. As people occupy the middle of the space, taking cell phone pictures, I move to the corners, to the edges, as far as I can maneuver from the glare. Out along the fringes, water falls in broken patterns, folding itself, like my jacket, to my form. I stand still, close my eyes and open them. If I angle myself correctly, I can almost imagine I’m alone. Somewhere in the middle of the room, my wife is having her own experience; we have come together, but I do not see her anymore. I ignore everything except the water: a controlled deluge, recycled, mitigated: orchestrated in the most essential sense. This is the fantasy technology offers, the reason we believe we’ll never die. If we can create rain inside a building, program it to keep us dry even in the midst of falling water, then how hard could it be to control the elements outside?

And yet, control…this is not what I am after, this is not what I want. I am seeking something wilder, something that cannot be contained. I am seeking the seam between chaos and creation, the artificial and the actual. Buckets of Rain: I repeat the Dylan lyric in my head. Buckets of rain / buckets of tears / got all them buckets coming out of my ears. I don’t know what it means, although of course I do. I am walking underneath the buckets, wet as this morning’s rain. I am full of buckets; they are pouring out of me. Pouring, yes, as I pirouette a slow circle, spinning closer to the center of the Rain Room, as if this will make the levels even, both within me and without. I am squinting, imagining I am nowhere, anywhere, imagining I am far from here. I am closing myself off, sensing the water as it falls around me but remains the merest breath apart. Then the guard announces it is time for a new group, and bodies ricochet in all directions like electrons in a cloud. I stand for one more moment, waiting, before I start to make my way. And I am moving now, trying not to be selfish; I don’t want to take more than my share of time. And I am moving now, unable to find a clear direction home. Fuck it, I think, and plunge forward through the water, liquid lancing my shoulders and my head. All day, I’ve avoided the rain’s cold touch, but that is no longer a choice.

I am a shedder. I have left every job I’ve ever had, by my own intention, and I have never spent much time or energy looking back. Out of sight, out of mind; what’s done is done; no regrets and no reunions, as if the past had been washed away. I don’t believe things last; I believe that we are here to go. I don’t believe in El Niño—or no…I believe in it, I can see it on the weather maps, those raging colors of precipitation, but it is just a thing to talk about. Like the drought, or global warming, both of which are real but at the same time never real enough. How do we come to terms with what we can’t quite recognize? How do we prepare? What I believe is that the very question is a tease, a come-on, that the water will come if and when and where it does, that it has nothing to do with us. I left my job because I wanted something different, I left my job because the timing was right. I left my job because I wanted to go to the museum on a weekday afternoon with my wife, to wind up soaking in my leather jacket, and afterward to step outside into a day as empty as the future, with a sky swept blank by rain.

On the walk home, I remember my tooth again, forgotten amidst the water’s manufactured fall. I test it once, twice, three times: step hard on the sidewalk, feel the echo rise again along the right side of my skull. Life is sad, Dylan sings, life is a bust / all you can do is do what you must. All I can do is remain conscious, take each moment as it comes. As we reach the corner of our block, I turn to my wife and, joking, murmur: This retirement thing is going pretty well so far.

David L. Ulin is the author of the recent novel Ear to the Ground, written with Paul Kolsby. He is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow whose other books include Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles and The Lost Art of Reading.

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