Setting (Things Potentially on Fire) by Dean Gloster
This morning broke cool and briefly calm, which was nice, because here in Berkeley we’re bracketed by wind-driven fires and the smoky aroma of incinerated brush and homes.
I’m typing this from a tiny table Cactus Taqueria, a few blocks from my house, because our power at home has been out for two days. For the cost of a delicious burrito, they have power outlets here and WiFi access from the Noah’s Bagels next door. Every time I look up from the laptop screen, though, it’s at the wind-agitated red-gold leaves and waving arms of a scrawny maple. Behind that, there’s the disturbing, almost apocalyptic sky--washed out, with too harsh sun filtered through too much haze.
This month, we’re supposed to post about setting. Considering the circumstances, this may be a bumpy ride. There are some parts of writing I’m good at—dialogue, humor—but setting isn’t any of them. (Even, apparently, when the world is on fire.)
At its best, setting is a character, helping to shape a story. It pushes on the characters, affecting their choices. Even the description of setting is filtered through the point of view character or narrator, passing along attitude and emotion.
Like so many other parts of writing, setting conveyed well is a combination of familiarization—let me show you this thing, and you’ll recognize it because it’s close to what you already know—and defamiliarization: Let me show you a new way to see, to experience this thing. That’s one reason synesthesia works so well in vivid description—using one sense to describe a completely different sense: The “dry squeak” of cold snow under boots.
I wish rain was on the way, bringing snow to our mountains.
Two days ago here, Saturday, hot winds started swirling from the land side, which always unsettles me in October, our powder keg month. It’s the tinder dry end of the fire season in California before the winter rains. The ominous messages piled up over the weekend—from PG&E that there might be power outages and then news of the spreading Kincade fire in Sonoma—where 185,000 people have evacuated—and the Tick fire in Southern California. Followed by the Glen Cove fire in Vallejo, the Getty fire in L.A., the Grizzly Island fire near Suisun, the Sky fire in Crockett, and the Highway 24 fires near Lafayette, and nameless fires, well, everywhere. California’s governor just announced that firefighters have responded to 330 new fires in the state in the last 24 hours.
In October when the swirling winds come from the land side, I always remember the hungry licking of the forty-foot-high wall of flame blazing through the ridge top homes in the Oakland Hills fire, 28 years ago this month, while I was driving to pick up my wife and daughter who were stranded in Tilden Park, and trying to eyeball how far North the fire had spread—if it had gotten to them already. (It had not. I picked them up safely, after being rear-ended on the way by another driver who was similarly looking over at the flames—I told him not to worry about the rear-ender. Perspective.)
Other writers—and their characters—would no doubt have a different set of associations with these gusts. Here is Raymond Chandler, in his Philip Marlowe short story “Red Wind”:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
That isn’t just setting. It’s voice, attitude, and world view carried on that hot wind. Chandler tells us more about Philip Marlowe and how he thinks than he does about the wind.
Where I’m typing this, the wall of windows on the street at Cactus shows that foot traffic is way down from usual, because of poor air quality, but what traffic there is looks normal—almost no one with a respirator mask, with pedestrians of all ages and their array of small dogs.
We’re just a few dozen miles from the mandatory evacuations and still-growing Kincade fire, but we’re safe. For now. There are renewed red flag warnings for tomorrow and the next day, though, with more high winds and low humidity in California.
The world is burning, friends,
and wind makes smoke a wall.
Hug those you love and speak your truth,
for one day that is all.
The world is on fire. Things are mostly normal. Both of those statements are true, and in my neighborhood of downed trees and crazy-quilt power outages, we wait patiently for our turns at the four way stops that three days ago were functioning traffic lights. For now.
This is the new normal, but it will soon be worse. Global temperatures have risen steadily since 1880 by a total of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, and the rate of change since 1981 has doubled. In the face of this threat, effective a week from today, the current occupant of the White House has pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accord—the one significant international agreement to reduce the rate of man-made emissions that contribute to global warming.
You can imagine I have an attitude about that.
This morning, I started my day by driving 13 miles to the shoulder clinic in Lafayette where I do Pilates work for my back, not sure if it was still standing. I got an error message when I tried calling them, and I knew there’d been two fires in Lafayette yesterday. Fortunately, they were still un-incinerated, just suffering through another power outage, so I did my exercises in the semi dark, with only the dim light from the windows. We adjust. We persist. We engage in self care. And we respond to our changing setting. Right now, hundreds of firefighters are trying to get these fires under control before the winds come again tomorrow, trying to save tens of thousands of threatened homes—including homes of people I know.
Last night, at a World Series Game, 45,000 fans who had paid $2000 a seat booed the man who is pulling us out of the Paris Climate Agreement next week. They spontaneously started chanting, “Lock him up!”
Because of the power outage, I wasn’t able to watch the game on TV, but I did watch videos of the boos and chants on Twitter, entranced by them on the tiny screen of my solar-charged phone. It was glorious.
This wasn’t a political leader leading a chant calling for retaliation against his rivals. It was a spontaneous act of resistance by the relatively well off, who'd had more than enough.
The world is on fire. Thing are not entirely normal.
Our setting is becoming more extreme.
Perhaps it is time we all became protagonists and did something about it.
Good luck to us all, especially those near the fire.
Dean Gloster is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. He has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His current novel is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has all the usual Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and a slightly off-kilter sensibility. Also a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 74 percent of his soul.
When Dean is not writing, studying Aikido, or downhill ski racing, he’s on Twitter: @deangloster