Thursday, April 15, 2010


I live in one of the greatest states in the Union, a region known for its natural beauty and hardy people with a can-do attitude. I’m blessed to raise a family here.  Still, it doesn’t compare to California. Nothing does, and I’ve traversed a few patches of this globe—Istanbul, Kabul, Tokyo, Munich, Montreal, Zurich. Touching down at LAX or driving through Needles over the border is a homecoming experience, even after all this time away. I moved from the West Coast when I was a wide-eyed young man bent on graduate school.  I turned down an offer at UCLA because I wanted to experience something different.  But I have visited my parents and in-laws every now and then over the years. Each time I’m reminded of the Golden State’s charms. If you were to ask me my impression of California earlier this morning, though, I would have grumbled a bit. I found the standstill traffic on the Bay Bridge quite vexing. I made it to SFO for my flight, but not without experiencing one of the state's few demerits: freeway gridlock.

As I’m waiting for the plane to take off let me recount the last few days. Writing in my notebook will help me ignore the rotund Wisconsin woman who’s complaining to a flight attendant about the kid allegedly kicking her seat.  She explains with obvious crocodile tears that she has a slip disk. Boy, would I love to get out my air violin right now, but I'll behave; I'll be sitting next to her for the next two and half hours.  Lucky me.  Unfortunately, dear readers, I’ll have to violate the non-S-word policy of this blog just one time here, because, if you'll allow me a crass colloquialism, she’s a piece of shit. (But I love her in God’s way, as we used to say.) Then there’s Mr. Halitosis, an Asian businessman seated to my left across the aisle, evidently not far enough away. Woe is me, wretch that I am! And did I mention that the plane is about 48 minutes late because they thought there was a fuel leak? If I didn’t, here goes: the plane is 48 minutes late because of an imagined fuel leak.

California is big, but it’s the little things that quicken my soul or at least reel me in. It’s spotting Del Taco or Carl’s Jr. signs on my way down I-5 to L.A.  It's the furrowed mountains and hills in all directions. It's the complaining about 60-degree weather.  It’s knowing that even amid a torrential rainfall a sunny sky won’t be long in coming. It’s the ethnic diversity.  Blue sky. Adobe rooftops. Fancy, shiny cars. Ever ready supply of new condos, apartments, and housing tracts. Liberals grumbling about the right-wing local newspaper and governing council. Conservatives lamenting the liberal cesspool around them.  The obligatory and ubiquitous supply of idiots, morons, and imbeciles.  And it's the exciting and disconcerting prospect of experiencing the Mother of All Quakes (having already paid my dues with three big earthquakes in my lifetime).

As mentioned in a previous blog entry, I arrived in the Bay Area last week for military training as a reservist. I stayed at the Hilton Hotel in Concord and each day would make visitations with the soldiers of my unit located throughout an old naval shipyard now operated by the Army. I attended briefings in the morning and late afternoon, all the while giving the illusion that I’m interested in what’s going on. I’m sure I wasn't the only one.

While chewing the fat at the rail tower, my soldiers, largely midwestern guys (and a gal), made mention of the liberal culture they perceived around them. To be sure, a soldier near Berkeley needs to exercise caution; yet, as an exCaliforniate, I would just smile as they exaggerate the threat. While in uniform I did some shopping and got some downtime at a coffee shop in between military obligations on the base. Two guys came up to me thanking me for my service, albeit they were Vietnam vets. Last Friday I was sitting at an outside table at Starbucks enjoying the sun and an iced Venti Americano. A fifty-year-old woman with a serious tan walks by pushing a motor scooter. She tells me she’s anti-war, but she’s appreciative of soldiers because they're just doing their job, or something to this effect. To her credit, she was a leftist with bit of perspective, not a radical weirdo (which has a counterpart on the far right).

So much for the Bay Area! I love it, having lived a couple of years in Santa Cruz, not too far south; but I’m not Tony Bennett. I left my heart in the Los Angeles area, though I don’t fully realize my emotional connection until I've visited.

Early Monday morning I drove five hours and 330 miles south from Concord to Santa Clarita to visit my parents and siblings for a couple of days. We celebrated my birthday at a Mexican restaurant.  The next day I lounged around the neighborhood pool, basking in the sun and making serious headway on my novel. Observe the photo above. These strange-looking primates are my family. You'll note on the table before me a margarita, which, when drunk after a healthy dose of Jack Daniel's back at my sister's place a half hour prior, makes for a delightful afternoon.  After the waiter took this photo with my sister's cell phone, some of the restaurant staff sang Happy Birthday and gave me a serving of flan with a candle on it.  How cool is that?!  I'll answer for you: moderately cool at best.  In all due respect, Mexicans never figured out the dessert thing too well. (We should have taken over the whole frickin' country when we had the chance back in 1848!  Ever had sweet concha bread?  That's supposed to be a pastry?  Besides, concha is Spanish slang for vagina.  What the hell?  Order a concha and some Mexican buns in Argentina and you'll get a surprise!)

It ain’t over until the fat Wisconsin lady in the seat next to me snores. We're landing in Denver now and I'll have only ten minutes to find my connecting flight...

I pride myself on being a social chameleon, someone who can adapt to just about any context or situation.  While visiting L.A. area, though, I realize that I've brought a Southern Californian sensibility and demeanor with me wherever I go and in whatever social context I find myself.  What that entails exactly I couldn't say for sure.

The family met for dinner the second day of my visit at an Asian restaurant.  Inevitably, my parents have to give either the waitress or cashier a hard time, embarrassing the hell out of me in the process.  I try to deal with the embarrassment by joking about it with my sister, who's had her fill of their restaurant antics as well.  There's always something wrong with their order and they seem convinced that "these people" are out to get them.  My mom drives around in a Camry and lives in an upscale residential area, and yet she pulls a coke bottle from her purse.  I might add that she doesn't attempt to be discreet about it either.

After the meal I suggested that we have a coffee and dessert.  The Starbucks just a few stores down is out of the question, because my dad once yelled at the baristas for cleaning the restroom midday.  It must be nice to have such a high sense of entitlement!  We settled on Corner Bakery Cafe.  So we're sitting at a table sharing a chocolate Bundt cake, right?  A woman walks over and tells my mom that she's beautiful and has a wonderful smile.  Weird, but nice.  I'm not doubting my mom's attractive attributes, but I suspect the woman was complimenting me indirectly and didn't want to be obvious about it.  What with my v-neck t-shirt from Old Navy, I attract more women that I know what to do with, frankly.

Let me fast-forward a bit. I'm now looking at patterns in the landscape out the window of a commuter jet somewhere over the Midwest.  I just did a quick glance down the wing like William Shatner in the Twilight Zone, but all is good.  It won't be long before we touch down.  Wherever it is I call home, I'll probably always feel like a stranger in a strange land.  I'm not so sure geography defines me as much as genetics, but California has left a stamp on my consciousness and affections.  Ironically perhaps, the homeland will never again be home, but it’s a familiar place with a storehouse of good memories.