Boomerang

I’m on my third boomerang move. The first time, I was just 21: dropped out of college my senior year, moved back “home” with my parents as a sort of cheap alternative to rehab. It wasn’t the house, or even the town, I’d grown up in: Mom and Dad upgraded to a bigger, nicer house in Victorville, 30 miles across the desert from Barstow (that much closer to LA) my second year of college. I felt terribly cheated by their decision to move, selfishly so. I wanted, on those rare times I came home to visit– Thanksgivings, Christmases, the occasional Easter, to come home to the house of memory.

 I would create new memories, somewhat, during the first boomerang move, which lasted maybe eight months. I met a guy online, fell in love, moved to Davis to be with him at the first possible opportunity. In the meantime, I worked as a janitor at Mountain High with my brother, and also at the Hot Dog on a Stick at the mall. I also tried out for, and got to be a contestant on, Win Ben Stein’s Money. I didn’t win, but I did well, and had a lot of fun.

When at twenty two, after transferring to UC Davis, and setting up house with the boyfriend I’d made online, I thought to myself: well, I’m totally independent now. I won’t hbe moving back with the folks ever again. After entering the PhD program in English at Davis two years later, I believed myself to be 100% grown-up, worldly-sophisticated and totally self-sufficient. Adult, if you will.

 Then, shortly after my 26th birthday, my Dad died of melanoma. I came to Victorville at the end of his illness, and stayed for the funeral. The next day, I was back in Northern California, sitting at a seminar table at UC Berkeley, where I was taking a class through the inter-campus exchange. I still thought I was going to finish that PhD. School started at Davis just a week or two later, but because my personal tragedy had occurred after Summer Session 2 ended but before Fall quarter began, I didn’t get one of those department-wide condolence emails announcing a death in the family. I think quite a few of my professors had no idea what had happened. To them, I just stopped being good at my work (do I still sound bitter?). My only concern was coping. I ended the relationship with the fellow from the internet following our four years of cohabitation, and tried to figure out what it was I ought to be doing with myself. I didn’t have many ideas, but a PhD didn’t seem like so great of a goal anymore.

I stuck around for a few more quarters, just long enough to eke out a Master’s before taking the leave of absence I wouldn’t return from. I should be home with my family, I thought. We ought to be together for our mourning, to support each other in our bereavement. I moved my stuff into storage and returned to Victorville for the second boomerang move.

Here’s what I thought was going to happen (besides mutual familial support and healing): I’d live at Mom’s, rent-free, get a job substitute teaching, and save enough money to pay off my student loan. It was a fine plan. Except I hit one little snag, trying to get that subbing job: my background check didn’t check out. Just one little arrest (no conviction) and I was deemed unfit to teach (well, I had to assume: I was never told specifically that I was prohibited from teaching, only that there was an indefinite “hold” on my LiveScan, which was finally lifted a full year after I’d jumped through all the hoops and expenses of getting cleared to substitute teach— TB screening, the CBEST exam, the aforementioned fingerprinting, etc. . . . costs I never recuperated because I never set foot in a K-12 classroom). Instead, I parlayed my fancy MA degree in English into a job as a Barnes & Noble bookseller, where I earned just enough to cover my gas and drinking expenses at the local karaoke bar, the only place that made living in Victorville tolerable.

With my income-to-expense ratio resulting in a net savings of zero, I made one last-ditch effort to earn the kind of cash that would allow me to settle my undergrad debt: I took the online test for Jeopardy!, and got called in to audition. I made it. As with Ben Stein’s Money, I acquitted myself admirably, but got matched up with a competitor who couldn’t be beaten. I took second place, a disappointing $2000 (yes, a tidy sum for just a day’s work, but one fifth of what I expected to take home. Yes, expected. I was that naïve). With the prize money, I bought a train ticket to Ann Arbor, where a new boyfriend was waiting for me. I had decided there was little reason for me to stay in Victorville, since I could as easily work at a B&N in Michigan and frequent the karaoke bars there; my presence at home didn’t seem to have much of an impact on anyone else’s grieving process, let alone my own, so why stay where I felt so stifled?

That was 2006. My issues with Victorville are no different than they were six years ago: the arts get little play here, and culture lies predominantly in the realms of off-road vehicles, professional wrestling and/or MMA fighting, drinking 40s in garages, indoor flea markets and dollar stores, and customizing the rear windows of SUVs and low riders with memorials to the dearly departed. Food is fast and life is cheap. Gang activity is common. Sprawl is rampant and walking is seldom an option—not just because of the relentless heat and lack of shade, but because of the aforementioned sprawl and dearth of sidewalks (not to mention a lack of worthwhile destinations, the Barnes and Noble at the mall and my favorite karaoke bar being the only notable exceptions, in my humble opinion).

I should add that I am deeply ashamed by that paragraph. I know the biases that it betrays, and that these are rooted in some ugly tendencies—a classist, racist attitude that college inculcated in me even as I studied the strains of academia that ostensibly would help me recognize those tendencies and combat them (women, gender and cultural studies). Where I come from, people are poorer, less educated, and more ethnically diverse than they are at Gonzaga or UC Davis. I’m trying to figure out how to own this in a way that doesn’t manifest as shame, or regret at the opportunities that weren’t available to me as a youth.

This investigation is part of the reason for my present boomerang move, though not the primary one. As with the prior moves home, this is an arrangement of convenience: I needed some time off during my transition between my accidental career in co-op marketing and my next move to MFA school and (what I hope will be) the start of my career as a writer. Mom’s house is still a rent-free, air-conditioned haven with a well-stocked refrigerator. There are additional physical considerations: Davis is temperate, near sea level, and a Shangri-La of sustainable living and local, seasonal, organic food. Leaving was difficult. I hope that the culture shock of my move to Tucson will be mitigated somewhat by this summer break in a place where the climate and elevation resemble southern Arizona more closely than northern California. I’m re-learning the necessity of copious hydration, the regular application of body lotion, and fabric softener PLUS dryer sheets (static electricity is a nightmare I had completely forgotten).

 I’m re-learning how to be me in a desert, as well as in a more existential sense. This family I come from, these cities of Barstow and Victorville helped shape me. How to reconcile where I come from with where I’m going—not to mention the exposure to dry, open spaces, spectacular sunsets and a sky as broad as the Earth is wide, and the interaction of this environment with my particular aesthetic (part of the draw of Tucson)—that’s what I’m here to do with my summer vacation. I’ve got a month left to do it in. I hope I have some progress to report before I go.

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Momentum

Blogging must be the hardest writing there is.

Oh, I’ve been essaying like a mad thing. All year I’ve been working on a book, a memoir, and I’m in my third section of a creative nonfiction writers’ group, during which I’ve workshopped six pieces, four of which I’ve submitted for publication. I’m hopeful, but certainly not holding my breath.

But blogging feels like something different. Perhaps it’s an unfair bias, but I don’t want to put my essays into the blogosphere. I want literary recognition. Is that silly? Am I a luddite to still believe in paper and editors and things that take a long time?

I’ll tell you some things. I’m applying to MFA programs for next fall. I’ve told my boss that I’m leaving my job next summer to pursue writing. I fully expect to be back in school next fall, but that’s out of my hands. If it doesn’t happen? I’m still leaving my job. Even if just temporarily, just to see if I can piece together a living through words.

This has been the plan since forever. I just forgot for about ten years.

Last weekend I went home. I rented a car and made the seven hour drive (each way) solo, wanting to take in the landscape between Davis and Victorville one last time before potentially leaving California. I spent lots of quality time with my nephews, brother, Mom. We visited my Dad’s grave in Riverside. We brought flowers and circus animal cookies. It was 92 degrees in Riverside and I foolishly wore jeans. I got the kids to play ’20 questions’ to help pass the time on the 45-minute drive to and from the cemetery– a mere blip compared to my long haul, but to an 8- and 9-year old, interminable.

At home, I gathered old photos. I wanted remembrances of all my departed to make an altar for Dia de los Muertos, and possessed no pictures of my maternal grandparents or paternal grandfather, or of Dad’s Grandma, Granny, the oldest relative I knew. I found photos of each of them, and of some departed uncles, great-uncles, and some fabulous black-and-whites from the 40s and earlier, of people I don’t know and even Mom didn’t recognize, but photos that spoke to me of history and lineage nonetheless.  I brought them all back, but that’s not all I brought.

There were lots of good reasons to make the long drive instead of taking a short flight home last weekend, but what I really wanted to do was collect my trunk and bring it back. The old-fashioned steamer trunk-style foot locker that my parents bought for me to tote my personal effects to my college dorm room, and which wound up coming back with me and remaining at Mom’s house during my first boomerang move back home in 2000. I filled the trunk with memories: snapshots and portraits, journals, yearbooks, letters and greeting cards, old poems, stories, and essays. It lived in the closet of the spare room/my room, with a lock on it, and naturally I left the key at my place in Davis. Steve helped me load the trunk into the back of the rental (it was too heavy for me to lift by myself), and I drove it the long way back to Davis. Across the desert and over the Tehachapi pass. Highway 99 from Bakersfield to Stockton, jam-packed with trucks and cars and people getting from here to there. Highway 4, the shortcut across Stockton, to the 5 North and Sacramento and the 80 West and traffic all throughout the causeway, traffic and NPR my constant companions from Stockton on. And I got home and I wrestled the trunk into my apartment and found the padlock key in my dresser drawer and unlocked the treasure chest.

So many memories. So much evidence of who I am, who I have always been. The whole history is there: I have been writing so long. And I was always good at it. Maybe I wasn’t as keen of an editor as I think I am now, but even in early works it is plain that I was in love with words. And I think I’ve come so far but all the things I’m thinking about, working through, focusing  my writing on– it’s always been what it is now. My poems and stories in high school deal with all the same themes I’m up to now. Isn’t that amazing? Or utterly unsurprising?

I gave myself a deadline of my thirty-third birthday, now a month and a half ago, to complete a draft of a memoir, in thirty three chapter-essays. I met that goal, but have had difficulty returning to the manuscript to begin the work of figuring out what it’s trying to be. I want and need more time to spend on it, but my pesky job keeps getting in the way. But if I’m honest with myself, I know there is no hurry to finish the book. The writing has been patiently waiting for me to pay attention to it for all these years, and now that I am, I feel obligated to make up for lost time, all the years I spent out of practice because I thought I didn’t have what it takes. Now I’m coming to consciousness that I do have what it takes. The book will happen in time. For now, I will just keep writing.

And, I hope, blogging.

How I spent my summer vacation

Riding the Rails

I just went on such a wonderful vacation.

David in the Observation car

First off, I had a great traveling companion in David. I was absolutely willing to drop my 3-page a day journaling habit for the duration of the trip, but he reminded me daily that vacation is as good a time as any to take the time out to write about your thoughts. So I kept up with my journaling, daily. As did David.

Riding the Rails

We took the train from Davis, leaving on the Coast Starlight at 11:30 on a Tuesday night and arriving in Portland shortly after 4pm Wednesday. Our friend Emilie greeted us at Union Station and promptly took us to her favorite food cart pod, where I got truffle oil french fries with herbed aioli at one truck and a fresh juice smoothie at another.

Union Station, Portland

David, Emilie, Truffle Oil Fries

Emilie and Jack were great hosts; Jack and David have known each other since birth, practically, and Jack and Emilie have only just moved to Portland earlier this year. I think they were as happy to host us as we were to crash at their place! Their apartment in West Linn was spacious and comfortable with a great patio and a brand new futon, so we were set. We bought daily transit passes and got a ride from a stop right across the street from their place to anywhere we wanted to go in Portland via bus and train. We had cheap but good breakfast in a shady diner with a bullet hole in the window downtown before stopping in at a gallery to see some truly fascinating albeit disturbing art on our way to wait in line for half an hour with all the other tourists to get our Voodoo Donuts and then go for a walk along the Willamette.

The PDX gang at John's Cafe. Note the bullet hole in the window.

Everybody wanted donuts. I wanted the sun to relent.

Back in West Linn, we went for a walk in a park that turned out to be more like a hike through a phenomenally gorgeous natural setting with a deep woods canopy, and a trail down a serious grade to a lakefront with grand boulders and thorny bushes full of all the ripe, sun-warmed blackberries we could ask for. On a pebbly beach we looked for flat rocks for skipping and pretty rocks for souvenirs. I took home about a dozen.

Ah, nature

After the park (and the great hike back up to civilization), we got back on the bus to downtown where we played video games and pinball at Ground Kontrol, a video arcade/bar where a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup is a regular menu item. And yes, that’s what I had for dinner there.

Good times

We could have stayed in Portland for our entire trip and never run out of things to do (my god we didn’t even go to Powell’s), but there was more northwest to be seen, so we took to our rental car and bid Jack and Emilie adieu and drove north to Lacey (first stopping at a Shari’s for lunch; it had been years since I ate at a Shari’s…), where we stayed with my aunt and uncle, who have elevated the act of hosting houseguests to an art. Everything there was comfort and amenities (want to use the hot tub? Go right ahead! We’re grilling salmon for dinner, and making fresh blueberry pie for dessert, that okay?), and just the joy of being around family who I so rarely get to see. We also made trips into Olympia, to the assisted living facility where my grandma lives, to stop in and visit her. My grandma helped raise me, so spending time with her is always a real pleasure. She moves surprisingly well for an eighty three year old; she is still exactly as I remember her, just a little slower is all.

We didn’t get to spend a ton of time in Olympia or with the family because the whole reason for the trip, the thing that put us on the road, was to celebrate the wedding of my good friend Jeremy to his wife Holly. I’d never met Holly, and David had never met anyone there, so my level of social anxiety was just a little high. But then I saw my friend Rick who I’d known would be there– he was Jeremy’s best man, naturally– and he said “we’re inside watching Arrested Development” and I thought, okay, this is going to be an okay wedding. And it was better than okay. It was inspiring. It was genuine. It was a joyous occasion. I went in with the slightest hesitation that there was no way that a wedding could measure up to to the level of exceptionalism that my friend Jeremy represents, but I was proven wrong. Best. Wedding. Ever.

All that was left of our excursion after that was a trip to Seattle to cram the ultimate tourist experience of the Emerald City into one sunny summer afternoon. We tried to get lunch at the Space Needle but got denied– no reservations. So instead we got pizza around the corner at a local chain called Zeek’s (our pizza, the Quentin Florentino, was exceptionally tasty) before buying our tickets and waiting in the line to take the elevator to the observation deck. It was a pretty spectacular view, but altogether too crowded and noisy.

view from the top

Then we took the monorail downtown and checked out Pike’s Place, but not before getting lost and walking to Lake Union first. Pike’s Place was more of the Space Needle madness but at a ground level– lots of crowds, lots of noise. We skirted it and didn’t even stop to watch the fish-throwing, because of all the  people. The waterfront was great, though. And before we headed back, I stopped back in at Pike’s Place to buy a bouquet of flowers to take to my Grandma the next day.
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Grandma seems to have the opposite of the sundowner’s syndrome– she’s more alert in the afternoons and evenings than the morning. The morning of the last day of our trip, David and I went to visit Grandma one last time, to take her the flowers and say goodbye, before heading back to Portland. We looked at some old pictures and some more recent ones (the best set, from her 75th birthday party, features the whole darned family), and lost all track of time. When I realized it was after noon, and we really had to go to return our rental car on time, we said hurried goodbyes and I felt and hoped, like I always do, that I’ll be back to see her soon. I hate that my “soon” always seems to stretch into years.

Back in Portland, we returned the rental car, then Emilie picked us and our luggage up for a late lunch at McMenamin’s Kennedy School before dropping us off at PDX. It was the first time any of us had been to the Kennedy School and we were all appropriately delighted. We had delicious lunch and beers in the Courtyard, delighting in the happy hour prices that our late lunch/early dinner meant. I found myself fantasizing about a possible future in Portland, it was such a great time. But during our hassle-free and blessedly swift flight home, looking out over the hills and trees and all that cloudy gray over lush evergreen, knowing just how damn much it rains there, I thought, nope, not for me, no way, and began immediately planning my next adventure: a road trip across the southwest, and most especially to Tuscon and Las Cruces. I just have this feeling that there is what’s next, and can’t wait to get there and see what it feels like.