I wrote a short story that everyone said would make a great film, but having already written two entertaining, culturally significant (really), yet unproduced screenplays, I wanted to try something different. The story was called Edna In The Desert; a bratty Brentwood 13-year-old is shipped off to her grandparents for the summer, sans cell phone service or internet access. Edna had a tough technology withdrawal to look forward to along with some serious soul searching. I wanted to explore her internal life without catering to the visual form, so Edna In The Desert would be a book. Perhaps it could still be a film afterwards. I'd never written a book before and, for some strange reason, it didn't occur to me to be daunted by it.
My fascination with the desert along with my mixed feelings about how technology is changing us fueled my passion for this story. There was an interesting video on The Huffington Post recently in which Dan Brian, a gay teen, comes out to his mother and then texts during her mostly supportive, if nuanced, reaction. It's ironic when she asks if being gay is what's caused the rift between them; he's typing away, not even looking at her. It was bizarre to tape this conversation in the first place, as if he's producing his own reality show.
I notice that all of my friends' kids are addicted to technology, intently focused on their devices until an adult tells them to say hello to someone or eat dinner. When I was a teen, I passed notes in class and called my friends on the phone, sometimes hours or even days later. There was no cyber-popularity, no online platform to maintain. Peer pressure for a contemporary girl like Edna must be brutal in her fancy, Brentwood private school and being suddenly cut off from cell phone service and the internet would be emotionally devastating and socially fatal. I'm not sure there is a comparative experience in my own life.
Most of the desert, in the U.S. Southwest, has cell phone service now, but driving through, you still lose it for long stretches. Every once in a while, there's a house surrounded by nothing in one of these expanses and I always think about how often I forget something at the store and what a hassle that would be. When you spend time in the desert, you hear about people who live completely off the grid, unconnected. They show up unshaven, in pajamas and slippers, every once in a while at Walmart. I don't know anyone like that, but I turned to some of my own Mojave encounters to create the version of the desert that Edna would be stranded in. Here's one of them:
Rick Chambers lives in a wide, empty basin down a long, dirt road on the edge of the civilized world. This setting provided a model for Edna's grandparents' house. Rick crafts guitars out of recycled wood and I was interviewing him for The Sun Runner magazine. Near the end of the interview, he explained that the pearl inlay in one of his guitar's frets formed a pattern that symbolized the year 2026. Based on information he'd gleaned from the Bible, this would be the year of the Rapture. "It's all written," he said and I could tell he was convinced of this. I asked him how he'd know when it all came down, as it might not be obvious from his remote location. His reaction was something like: it didn't much matter. For all he knew, it could have already happened, he was on his path to Christ regardless. At this moment, his neighbor came over. He lived many miles away. He was also what I'd now call a Christian Survivalist, hunkered down for the Rapture. They were going to play guitar together. The portly, black-hatted gentleman surmised that I must write for "that porno rag." I knew this perception was a result of a recent scuffle in the local press and evangelical community because of an ad from an artist who uses sex toys to make art. (I made a short documentary of Randy Polumbo's "Grotto" at Burning Man some years later, but back to the interview.)
The next phase of it had nothing to do with Rick Chambers, a rugged American who makes great guitars, or his friend, who was just misinformed. It is really my own, wild imagination, too many horror movies and Woody Allen's Annie Hall that afflicted my thinking. I suddenly realized that no one except the editor knew I was interviewing Rick and even he didn't know when. As a woman of Eastern European (ie: Jewish) heritage from New York who writes for what is apparently now perceived as a "porno rag," I could, if people believe the Rapture is coming in 2026, be perceived as some kind of witch. While not inevitable, it was conceivable. My body could be dumped anywhere around here and never be found. My heart pounded. What was I thinking, driving deep into the middle of nowhere to meet a complete stranger, alone, without telling anyone? This isolation felt more dangerous than the worst city neighborhood. I had enough material for the article before this bit about the Rapture and the "porno rag" comment, so I high-tailed it out of there.
I was (probably) never in any danger but adrenaline raced through me as I drove away. I will never forget my pure panic in this moment and I've often tapped into it imagining how Edna must feel left in this hostile, solitary environment without the ability to text her friends or see them on Facebook, something she probably does twenty times a day, if not all day. It was oddly claustrophobic. I couldn't breathe. I felt trapped, not inside, but outside, shut away from the rest of the world. Even if I screamed as loud as I could, no one would ever hear me. Modern teenagers don't have to go anywhere exotic to feel this, I guess. We can just take away their phones.