Skip to content

the concept of home (or, navel-gazing)

July 16, 2009

Santa Monica Pier reflections, originally uploaded by pixelstate.

I have not yet decided exactly what form or function this blog is going to assume. I know that I’m a writer who doesn’t write very much, an Angelena with only a passing interest in cars or movies, a calendar addict with no clear idea of where I’m going in life. It’s probably going to be about all of those tensions, to some degree or another, but I’d also like for it to be a little more cohesive than that, to have some clear theme or purpose.

There are a couple of premeditated reasons why I started blogging again. For one thing, it’s meant as exercise. I have job that is writing-intensive but offers very little outlet for creativity, and I’m starting to be convinced that my verbal skills are limited to how many different synonyms I can find for words like “enhance” and “integrate.” For another, I’ve spent a lot of 2008 and 2009 playing tour guide around Los Angeles (it helped that I seemed to be dating only men who were from somewhere else), and for the first time I feel like I really have some kind of a grip on this city. I want to organize all of that knowledge somewhere, because I am one of those compulsive types who feels like I will misplace any memory I haven’t written down.

And then there are some reasons that are evolving as I go along. For instance, I stumbled across this interesting little Slate article, which talks about the literary beatings Los Angeles has always taken, mostly from authors who are transplants or have spent only the briefest time on the West Coast:

Although it is the second-largest city in America, in the literary imagination [Los Angeles] is still a colony. Instead of speaking for itself, the city is spoken about. Our classic descriptions of Los Angeles were written by visitors who spent only a few weeks or months in the city; or by imported slaves of Hollywood, who act out their rebellion against the city at large; or even by natives writing mainly for an audience somewhere else. What is missing, with a few notable exceptions, is a Los Angeles literature unconcerned with the outside world, intent on explaining the city to itself—as Dickens did with London, or Balzac with Paris.”

I don’t have any pretensions about contributing to “literature” with a spare-time blog, but maybe that last sentence is part of what I’m trying to do. Most of what I read about LA — with the notable exception of Didion, who I’ve fallen in love with this year — rings false. I’d like to try to come up with something closer to the truth, so when I’m 80 I’ll remember the city that I actually lived in and not the city that Norman Mailer dismissed as “a constellation of plastic.”

But perhaps most importantly, I’m realizing is that this is a way of coming to terms with one of the major holes in my own history.

My sister and I have both always felt like we somehow grew up without what could properly be called a hometown. We’re from Simi Valley, just outside of the Los Angeles county line, a place that’s as bland as most suburbs, if prettier. My college roommate was from Chicago, so she came home for Thanksgiving with my family in the fall of our freshman year. It was gorgeous that weekend — it had been raining like mad, so the mountains that ring the valley were an extravagant, luxurious green, and the sky was that unique blue of a western November. I remember driving into Simi on the 118 with her in my passenger seat, and she looked up just as we were dropping over the crest of the hill, exclaiming “My God, Kate, you live in Middle Earth!” And it did look like something straight out of Tolkein, that day.

Still. From the time I finished first grade, my sister and I both went to school “over the hill,” in the San Fernando Valley. Our dance studios, piano teachers and churches were all somewhere in the Valley, too. The friends we met lived in Studio City, Encino, Winnetka, West Hills, Westlake, Northridge, all kinds of municipalities that weren’t ours. (That same college roommate, on being taken to a few of my friends’ houses during that same Thanksgiving break, declared as we turned onto yet another freeway, “I could visit all of my high school friends on rollerblades!”) And my sister and I came to the realization, after we’d each moved away, that if we visit Simi in 50 years there will probably be no place and nobody that we will really need to see.

My mom, on the other hand, is from a tiny, rural town in the Midwest. It’s a sad outpost, these days: battered, poor, uneducated. Sneeze too hard and the whole thing might blow clear off the map. But that woman knows about home. She knows the streets, the houses where the families of all her childhood friends used to live, and many of them are still there. She has memories of holiday dinners in the basement of the dollhouse Lutheran church, and hunting for Nancy Drew books in the tiny public library on the town square. She knows the people that bought her old house, the one my grandfather built himself, so she goes back to visit and sit on the front steps. Chances are good that somebody who walks by will recognize her and come up the lawn to give her a hug.

It’s always made me sad that I don’t have that kind of connection to any place. But in writing and thinking about this blog, I begin to realize that my lens has always been a little too narrow, focused perhaps by that tiny Midwestern town I’ve always thought of as the exemplar of “home.” Los Angeles is nothing if not sprawling, so it makes sense that my own experience with home is a little more diffuse, a littler further-reaching. The beaches, the universities, the Santa Monica and the San Gabriel and the Santa Susana mountains, the big arching overpasses, the Costcos and the Pinkberries next to the taco trucks and the carts selling ghetto dogs. I see snapshots of myself: Driving my rattletrap Jeep through the middle of Beverly Hills. Perched on a chaise on a downtown rooftop, $18 martini in hand. Hiking up Runyon Canyon in yoga pants, surprised to find I fit in.

This whole crazy circus is my town, my hometown, and somehow this year I am learning how to lay claim to it.

Swing high, originally uploaded by pixelstate.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 18, 2009 11:46 pm

    I grew up three decades before you did and not but 15 miles away. I joined the Navy, traveled the world (or at least the part of it where people wanted to shoot at me) and then came back here. I came back because the only close family I had was here, so it’s my fault you and your sister grew up in the desert like sprawl and social morass of Southern California. Now, without exception, all of the friends and family I knew in my youth are gone far away or, more permanently, really “gone”. In addition to that, unlike the midwestern town your mother grew up in, this place doesn’t even LOOK like it did in the 1950’s. Oh, the far horizon mountain silhouette is the same, but the San Fernando valley was all rolling horse ranches and sweet smelling citrus groves as far as the eye could see. As a boy of eight, I used to put a .22 rifle across my handlebars and ride up into the hills to hunt squirrels and rabbits. People would wave as I rode by and ask me if I had had any luck as I rode home. Not many homes then. Not many cars. Darn few people. Not like the concrete and steel madhouse it is now.

    Three days ago, I drove by the house I lived in from the time I was five until I left for the Navy at 19. The house and the neighborhood were new the year we moved in (1958). The house cost $16,000 and the payments were $54 a month. And I remember my Mom being in a panic over where they were going to get $54 A MONTH !!! The neighborhood is a very sad sight now. The houses are mostly tumbled down and in various stages of disrepair. The windows have iron bars. There is a lot of graffiti on block walls and signs. The wooden gates and fences I helped my Father build for and with the neighbors back then are all gone…replaced by chain link and block. The corner gas station where I often rode my bike to buy a cold Coke in a bottle from a machine that looked like a red ice chest has long since been bulldozed. The neatly groomed new little neighborhood that I knew in my youth, populated by the cabinet maker, and the Disney cartoonist, and the lighting salesman, and all their families, has faded away with the years. I left my home town as a young man and, when I came back to visit, I found that it had forever left me, morphed by time into something I could not really recognize.

    So, I sympathize with you and your sister. But, if it makes you feel any better, I have heard the same story from my own Father about his life as a child in Brooklyn, New York and from my Mother about her home town in Illinois. Perhaps the old adage is correct, that “home is where the heart is” and not where the buildings once stood. Even now, fifty plus years on, when I close my eyes, I can remember the smells and sounds and scenes of my childhood. I see the faces of my teachers and school mates. I climb the far hills. I hunt in the shadowed woods. I taste the ice cream from a beat up truck playing Christmas music on a hot Southern California day. I can smell the fragrance of the endless orange groves and rest in the shade of the trees. I can walk by the sea on uncrowded beaches and go to Disneyland on a very crowded day with one or two hundred other patrons. I can see my own grand parents, half a world away from everyone and everything they knew in their own youth, living happy lives with their children and grand children. So, for me at least, all the best of it can still be visited…and savored. I can still take a moment…and be “home”.

    But that “home” faded to relative insignificance when my daughters were born. Now, when I grow nostalgic and want to visit my best memories, they are of two tiny girls padding across my small kitchen floor in bare feet… or running to greet me at the front door…or sleeping quietly in the darkness in their tiny beds as I gently kissed their cheeks. Yes….. home is where the heart is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: