Tuesday, July 21, 2015

L.A. Diary (personal)

Fear and trembling come upon me, And horror has overwhelmed me. I said, "Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. "Behold, I would wander far away, I would lodge in the wilderness. Selah.…
Psalm 55:5-7

1. "No one may ever have the same knowledge again."

Lately I've been obsessed with an idea. Have you ever heard those stories about someone getting a last-minute unexpected seat change and ending up seated next to their future wife? Or going to a party that they weren't intending on going to, and meeting their future husband? Or getting fired from a job and ending up finding the career that they love? Or moving across country with nothing and ending up with a dream job and meeting the love of their life? You know, those stories where the most random thing happens, almost impossible odds, and yet people magically end up exactly where they are supposed to be in the life they are supposed to be living?

I have. I'm sure we've all heard those stories.

What I imagine is that if there are these stories, then there must also be the opposite. What about the person whose seat changed at the last minute and ended up not meeting their future wife? Or who picked the wrong hotel when their ideal mate was just one building over, or one room below? Or never made that move, and never wound up with a job that would be perfect for them, even though they would have been a shoo-in.

Surely if the former exists, then the latter must as well. There must be people who are always unlucky; who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Things never quite work out for them. They are always missing by a slight margin the things that will make their life on this planet enjoyable. And so they slog along in misery never quite living the life they were meant to, always knowing that something is wrong, but never quite sure what to do about it. And when they do act, it is too late, or the wrong time.

What about the person who is always a day late and a dollar short? We never hear about them, because by definition they do not know what they missed. They do not know the person they were supposed to marry was at the wedding they couldn't go to, or that their perfect job was one town over from the one they moved to and they ended up unemployed and homeless. It's survivor bias - we only hear the good stories. Yet surely the bad ones must exist as well.

2. Tell the bees.

I decided to go back to Topanga. I suppose I should have picked someplace else, but I wanted to see if the feelings I felt there were real, or illusion in my memory. I suppose their are two views of travel --to go a different place each time, or find the place you love and go there often. Breadth versus depth. There aren't many places I love, though, at least not in this country. There is no rhyme or reason for the timing of my visit, except that I just don't want to walk into that damn office on another Monday morning and suffer through another week. I needed to get away. And so, I picked a week and said I would be gone. I just needed time to get away and think.

Monday morning, my flight to Denver is late because of storms out of Chicago. I will never make the connection. I am put on a flight to Newark, and then flying across the entire four time zone breadth of the country to Los Angeles. That flight, too is late. Another visit to the airline representative. There is a flight that will get me in after 8:00PM. I have a few rules of travel, and one is to arrive with enough day left to roll with the punches, and Topanga is hard to navigate in the dark even if you have been there before. I ask for a flight the next day. I call the rental company and tell them I will be there at the same time, but the next day. I email K. and tell her I will be arriving a day later than planned.
This gives me an opportunity to pack some things I overlooked that morning. That evening, thunderstorms roll through. In the darkness I go outside and look to the east. The sky is ablaze with flashes of light and streaks of lightning. There is no rain, and no sound, just the lightning lighting up the sky like fireworks.

Tuesday things go as they were supposed to go Monday. I am day behind. I get in my car, activate the GPS, and head to the Pacific Coast Highway.

My mom told me a few weeks ago that she has breast cancer. She just sort of tells me matter-of-factly in a scene eerily reminiscent of the one from the shlock film The Room. But what other way is there do deliver such news? She has been fatalistic of late, sprinkling future plans with "If I'm still alive..." She is now the same age as her mother, my grandmother, when she died, and I think she feels that here time has run out. Money is tight.

I don't know what to think, or feel. I have been all alone in this world except for her. And, of course, I know this day would come, and yet refused to believe it on anything more than an intellectual level. Not much is known, but her biopsy is due the week I am gone. She will schedule the surgery for after I get back.

3. The lives of perfect creatures.

All along Topanga Canyon Boulevard I see signs for a Reggae Festival to be held July 25-26. That's the weekend after I leave. Shit! I should have waited another week. To add to that, Christopher Ryan is coming to southern California at the end of July. He typically stays in Topanga. Might I have run into him? At the Reggae Festival, or Mimosa Cafe, or elsewhere? Might he stay at K's place? I guess I won't know.

K. and I reconnect. Her daughter is at what is called a summer "camp," but it's really a summer school. She is a talented artist, and trying to get into the most exclusive arts high school in L.A.
Here friend S. comes over. She has a daughter the same age as K.'s. She is from Amsterdam, and apparently has a very interesting place of her own. I won't get to see it, because S. is heading to San Francisco tomorrow. She has brought wine. We chat. She's been all over the world. She travels to where she wansts to go. It sounds wonderful. We watch a movie, coincidentally about a famous Milwaukee son - Behind the Candelabra, about Liberace and his lover Scott Thorsen (who is from my dad's hometown of LaCrosse).

And I think how wonderful it is just to be spending time with people, like this, something that I would never get to do otherwise, something that most people take for granted. It's a reminder of how isolating my life is, and how much I miss friends and human contact. She and a bunch of friends are all going to stay and hang out and go to the Reggae festival next weekend. Shit, why didn't I wait another week?

I check in on Facebook, which I do rarely, and I see to my great surprise that my friend's mother has died on Monday. I did not even know she was ill. I write my condolences, but I am over a thousand miles away. Of course the service will be this week. I will not be there. I cannot be there, and I feel terrible. I knew his mother well. In high school I spent much time at their apartment. It feels wrong to not be there, but what can I do? Of all the weeks...

For the last several months I had been meaning to email my friend to meet for lunch at the Mongolian Barbecue restaurant where we usually go now that it is finally summer. Week after week I thought about it but never followed through. And now this. Perhaps he will be angry. Perhaps we will not speak again. Perhaps it doesn't matter. Perhaps nothing does.

I've already been to one service this year. There has been a lot of death this year, and it makes me afraid of the future. Things seem to be aligning in eerie ways.

That evening K. and I talk architecture again. Acosanti and Paolo Soleri. Nader Khalili and superabode (she took a class from him). She works in metal, and tells me how difficult it is to get paid what you're worth. She was asked to design a custom metal stair in a luxury home, and the $25,000 budget, which is quite reasonable for the scope, was too much. Right now here idea is to buy houses and redesign them. She is getting her subcontractor's license. Her business partner is a carpenter (I met him last time), and right now they are working on his place as a first go.

She learned welding about seven years ago from a college in L.A. that taught people trades. She felt drawn to work in metal. The instructor, who could tell that the only woman in a class of young men was not interested in a conventional welding job, took her under his wing and she was able to learn under at him at her own pace pretty much all she needed to know to be a metal sculptor.Before that, she had had a number of jobs and lived all over - an editor in New York - a fishing boat in Alaska, time in Chile. She was arrested in Madison once for trespassing because she needed a place to stay while travelling cross-country. She was just looking for what she wanted to do.

As for the drought - on the ground you learn a few things. K. tells me that everyone is being asked to restrict their water usage by a certain amount across the board. The thing is, people are not equal. She has drip irrigation, has not planted as much as she would like, and has people staying at her place - hence higher water usage. Her neighbor is a single man who has a grass lawn and sprinklers, yet they are both asked to reduce by the same amount. "It's just an attempt for more money," she concludes.

K. tells me I should go to Joshua Tree. The people who can no longer deal with the restrictive bureaucracy and sky-high land values of Topanga leave for Joshua Tree, she tells me. Land is cheaper out there, and people build what they want -lots of artist communities and a real free vibe. I probably won't make it this trip, but I do want to go. The three of us watch Game of Thrones and I go to bed.

4. Garden of Eden on wheels.

I'm in Santa Monica at a tiny sunlit garden at the rear of a French cafe enjoying the soup. I've already tried Omusubi at the first Omusubi place on the West Coast, and you should really try some if you get the chance. I  hope it spreads. I see I've received several calls. It's K. Apparently, I've made an error, and someone else is coming to say in the room that night. How embarrassing!  Fortunately, the room in L.'s place, who I will be staying with the rest of the trip, is available. She has moved from Marina Del Ray to place in Topanga just up the hill from K. I gather my things and head there.

Earlier that day on Santa Monica beach, near the pier, a woman fell of her bike and hit her head. I did not see it, but only heard the thud. The older woman could get up, but a streak of red pooled down her neck. A bunch of us rushed over. Several people walked her over to a bench and took care of her, and 911 had been called. She will probably be all right, but I am still a bit shaken.

L's new place is the of of a duplex at the top of a steep mountain road lined with cypress trees. You walk up a flight of stair to a deck on the roof of a carport where the entrance is.The view is spectacular.

That evening I tell L. about my mother. I also mention my job predicament. She also knows how unhappy I am where I am right now. She says "You need to pray for a miracle." But she is not being glib or facetious. She says that sometimes you have to move beyond what your rational mind tells you and believe that you will find where you need to go. I tell her about my theories, but she is not buying it. She says "the world does not work like that." I mention my bad timing, but she is determined to find a better angle. "Maybe you are meant to do things a few times before you get them right. Maybe something bad would have happened next week." I don't know. Maybe there is no benefit. Maybe there is no upside to making the wrong choices over and over again.

She is about to leave to travel around her native Mexico with her two children 14 and 22. They are leaving on Monday. She is trying to find someone to lease her place to while she is gone. She is also disappointed that she will not be there for the Reggae festival.

Friday on the way back from floating, I stop at the Topanga farmer's market. Parking on the street, I foolishly huff and puff my way up to the building. I'm drawn to the raw milk. I've never tasted raw milk, and I chat with the people at the booth. I tell them that it is illegal to sell raw milk in the Dairy State where I come from. They are from a farm in Fresno. There are extremely generous with samples -raw milk, cream, cheese, butter, kefir; I get to try it all. I buy a quart and take it back. They throw in some butter and cheese. L. is very into food and has a copy of Nourishing Traditions and is familiar with the work Weston Price. She's also into cooking. She tells me to always soak beans with lemon and salt, and to skim off the the top of beans when you boil them to remove the toxins.

5. The world is bound with secret knots.

Saturday it rains. Hard. Thunderstorms. Downpours.  I've never seen it rain in L.A. and of course it is major event. Of course it would be silly for me to believe it has anything to do with me, but it is odd to experience such freakish weather, even if it is needed.

The rainy day is the perfect opportunity to go to a museum I had heard about--The Museum of Jurassic Technology, so I head to the Palms district on the Westside and park on Venice Boulevard. I walk through the warm, dimly-lit room of the wunderkammer filled with their curios and oddities. Of course, the place is impossible to describe by design. There are rooms dedicated to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Athanasius Kircher. One of the halls tells the curious tale of a German engineer named Geoffrey Sonnabend and a Romanian opera singer named Madelena Delani at the turn of the century, and a series of odd links between them centered on Iguazu Falls in Argentina (a replica of the waterfall is on display)

Delani's final performance at the falls (she died tragically young) gave Sonnabend an idea that he would spin into a three-volume work arguing that only the present exists and memory is an illusion. Forgetting, not remembering is the outcome of all experience. What we experience as memories are artificial constructions of our own design built around sterile particles of retained experience which we attempt to make live again by infusion of imagination. Somehow, he illustrates these concepts graphically with a plane intersecting a cone.

"We, amnesiacs all, condemned to live in an eternally fleeting present, have created the most elaborate of human constructions, memory, to buffer ourselves against the intolerable knowledge of the irreversible passage of time and the irretrieveability of its moments and events."

On the top floor is a tea room with delicious tea and cookies. There is small courtyard open to the air with shades, but the rain has made it quite soggy. There are several tame doves sitting in alcoves around the room and in cages.

An Indian restaurant is on the way to the car. I stop in for a quick buffet bite. The man I'm sitting next to is gaming Uber. The price went up and down just in the time he was in the restaurant. We chat a bit about Uber. I know that gas prices in Southern California are at extreme highs because the main refinery for all of Southern California in Torrence was damaged. He's a starving artist. He considered a program where you can drive for Uber and it helps you pay for the lease on a car but decided against having to own one.

On the way back, Old Topanga Canyon Road is completely closed down. I head to Woodland Hills and find a way to come in the opposite direction via Mulholland Highway. When I arrive, L. tells me that a home nearby has burned down and a family has lost everything, but fortunately no one was harmed. The fire was spreading precipitously, and a plume of smoke was rising from the house. She shows me a photo. The rain must have slowed down the fire.

That evening, a fellow named Jeff comes by. He is apparently L.'s boyfriend. He is a chef/caterer for the celebrities of L.A. When he hears I have a blog, he suggest I should blog about his experiences. He tells me stories about the celebrities of L.A. Then he tells a number of stories about some strange things that had happened to him during the time he worked as the personal chef for one of Hollywood's biggest stars who was filming for eight months in North Carolina.

He had weekends off, so he would go to restaurants. At one restaurant he took the last seat available. Next to him was a fellow who ordered the exact same dish. They got to talking. They became good friends. But soon after they met, he had visions of him being in a Confederate uniform, and the man also being in a uniform and watching him die. He had four unique visions and came to realize that the man was his father in another life, and he was his son during the Civil War. He kept these visions quiet during the time they spent together for fear of being thought of as weird. At the end of their time together in North Carolina, the man said to him, unprompted, "I know this is going to sound like I'm crazy, but I've been experiencing these visions..." They were the same. I said, "What would have  happened if you had not gotten that job?" He was in competition with 29 other chefs for the job, and the actor's representatives just happened to reach out to the contacts he worked with.

L. tells me that they are looking for volunteers to help with some sort of bottle sculpture they are creating for the Reggae concert. My Sunday afternoon is open, so I text that I will be there. Meeting people is the main thing I want to do.

6. Everything that rises must converge.

Sunday morning the rain has stopped. After floating in the morning, I head to the Topanga Community House that afternoon.

A young woman named Brynne is organizing it, along with her boyfriend Brooks. Several more people show up with bottles. The idea is to paint the bottles red, green and yellow. cut the bottoms off, pull them out, and tie them to a central pole to make a sort of faux-Chihuly sculpture. Unfortunately, we'll only be painting today, so I won't see the finished result. I tell them where I am from, and they are amazed that I came to volunteer here on my vacation. I tell them I'm disappointed that I'm leaving before the fest and won't get to see it. "Can't you stay longer?" she asks, and I wish I could.

Brynne moved to Topanga about three months ago. Before that she was in Nashville. Before that she worked in Alaska at a fishing lodge. She is from a small town in Florida. Visiting her siblings in L.A. she met her boyfriend, who is a native Topangan. She encourages me to move there as we sit and paint the plastic bottles. "You shouldn't live in a place that you don't want to be," she tells me. I don't tell her about my mom's health condition because I don't want to be depressing. "You'd make plenty of friends here," she tells me," and I find it easy to believe her.

Her boyfriend, who is promoting the concert, is talking about selling mushrooms at music concerts in high school. Brynne and I talk about what it must be like to grow up here, your neighbors all starting businesses and meeting celebrities and so forth. "You must get this idea that you can go for things, that you can do anything you want to because everyone around you is," she says. It's different from the small town in Florida where she grew up, and certainly the opposite of where I come from where you follow the past of least resistance. Sensing my hesitation, she says, "A lot of people are worried about the cost of living here, but you get paid more too." She is working as a server and is able to live comfortable enough. Like all the Californians I've met, she's positive and optimistic.

After the painting, we all sit around and talk. When I tell one of the guys there I am from Milwaukee, he tells me a story about the time he got drafted into a motorcycle gang in Madison. He was tripping on LSD and went into a bar with the giggles. Somehow, he got roped into a fight and got thrown out. Determined, he went back the next day (still tripping a bit) and the same thing happened. Undeterred, he decided to try one final day (finally not tripping). The bikers invited him to a volleyball match, where he got beat up while playing. Getting on his motorcycle, he knocked over one of the other biker's rides. Rather than trouble, he had earned the bikers' respect through his tenacity, and was invited to sign the register and become a member. It seems everyone has a story like that.

All in all, it was a nice way to end this trip. Departing, they tell me about a place called Tuna Canyon and how to get there. I head there, but the rains come once again and I am forced to turn back.

I head back to L's place. She has postponed her trip by a week - her son is heading to Baja to interview farm workers who have been horribly exploited by Driscoll's berries. Apparently it's related to his college thesis. She tells me about camping in the Sequoia National Park, and tells me I should go there to see the majestic trees. She gives me a map. The rains have subsided, and for the first time I see clouds floating at eye level through the mountains. That evening the cicadas chirp and the coyotes howl on the mountainside.

The next day she makes coffee and toast, and then I head to the airport. She says she has a feeling that I will be at the concert next weekend, but I won't be. Too bad, volunteering gets me free access. What would have happened if I were? All things considered, it would have made a lot more sense. so many strange happenings and strange timings. It's enough to drive you crazy.

It's time to head home and once again the plane of forgetting intersects the cone of memory. I don't know if I came up with any answers. Maybe we do need a few tries to get things right. Maybe the world works in mysterious ways. Maybe there are more things under heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy. Maybe miracles are real. I hope so. I have a feeling it's going to be a rough year ahead.


  1. It's spelled Soleri.

    It's spelled Chiluly.

    You are smarter than the average cheese head to want to come out here, but what are you going to do? There are no jobs.

  2. Raw milk just means farm fresh TB!!

    You need some kind of a break but the west coast is not magic. I was born here and it's been working for me but I have a feeling I'd be far better off in cheese head country if i had any roots there. Everyone wants to live out here but its crazy expensive, tech jobs are a few per cent of the economy and most tech gigs pay minimum wage anyway. It's all a huge hype.

    If I had any connections in the great lakes region I'd move there in a heartbeat. I love California but its a hungry country.

  3. Raw milk just means farm fresh TB!!

    You need some kind of a break but the west coast is not magic. I was born here and it's been working for me but I have a feeling I'd be far better off in cheese head country if i had any roots there. Everyone wants to live out here but its crazy expensive, tech jobs are a few per cent of the economy and most tech gigs pay minimum wage anyway. It's all a huge hype.

    If I had any connections in the great lakes region I'd move there in a heartbeat. I love California but its a hungry country.

    1. I think your first winter here might make you reconsider your decision, lol. Maybe not, some people don't seem to mind at all. Check out Madison. A lot of people like it there, and the cold has kept it from being swamped like Austin and some other medium-sized progressive cities. Affordable, great music scene and a wonderful farmers market at the capitol on Saturdays. Lost of great scenery too, once you get away from the beltway sprawl.

  4. I only wanted to write and express my appreciation for your blog, which I have been reading for a few years now. You always seem so honest and oddly vulnerable. I think I return because I so often feel some of the same disaffectation with current circumstances. This is just a thank you.

  5. Yes, another Thank You here too. I have learned the purpose of the internet - it is to give us something to do while we are are sitting in our chairs, looking at our monitors during our "jobs". Your page is a great help with that.

    But what compels me to write just now is your Topanga adventure post. Alex is being harsh, but he is right, mostly. I also grew up in the LA area, and I now live in Kansas. It is way easier to live in flyover land. I don't need to tell you about that. But I can say something about southern California. Topanga is a good place to experience many of the stereotypes we hear about southern California. But it is not typical of the greater Los Angeles area. Most of the LA area is more like Bellflower, or Inglewood, or Monrovia. These are the kinds of places that ordinary people live. Places that are (almost) affordable on a middle class salary. Even when I was a teenager, and still thought LA was the center of the world, I knew that if you were not within easy bicycle range of the beach, you would be out of your mind to live in LA or Orange Counties.
    If you moved to southern California, you could probably make a go of living in Palms, or Hawthorn, or Long Beach. But even still, it would not be like being on vacation in Topanga. You would not meet your neighbors. You would only know the people that you worked with. You would spend at least 12 hours a week in your car. This is not because Californians are less friendly than midwesterners - most of them ARE midwesterners. It is because just getting housed and fed in LA takes more hours of the day for anyone but the top 5%. I am not trying to talk you out of going to California. I think you should go if you feel like it - and if you can arrange your life so that you can get to the beach regularly. I recommend learning to surf. The surf metaphor for life is very powerful, and the only way to deeply understand it is to actually surf. It is a long story that sounds stupid to everyone except surfers, so I won't go on about it, just that surfing is about finesse. Using your small but fine efforts to turn the huge power of the wave (which doesn't care if you live or die) into something delightful.

    I know that you weren't asking for advice, but I think there is something in what L. was trying to tell you. Think of prayer as a means of focusing your attention. What if you were at the right place and time and met the woman and job of your dreams, but didn't do whatever the little jui-jitsu social things necessary to make them yours. It is not just a matter of chance and timing. There is also intention and effort involved. And social skill. The necessary skills are learned by practice over time. I believe that those parts are the main ones - what people mean when they talk about making their own luck. Finding opportunity where (& when) you are is much easier and responsive to applied effort than waiting for happenstance. It sounds like you had no trouble meeting people and being friendly with them in LA, so why not just do more of that wherever you are? I know that hating your job is a terrible weight to carry, I have been there too, but I have always made an effort to also have something to do that I cared about outside of work. Right now I do a fair bit of social dancing. I don't know what your tastes are, but Contra dances are very rewarding, and require no skill at all. Argentine Tango requires a lot more practice to get proficient, but is very satisfying. Either can be done nearly anywhere in the country - even Milwaukee.

    So if you fall into a fabulous new life, and don't have the time or inclination to keep we bored office drones updated on the world like you have been doing here so well, don't worry. We will get by somehow.
    Cheers & good luck.

    1. I wish I could surf - it looks like so much fun! I think something is wrong with me though - I'm a terrible swimmer, and whenever I was thrown in the pool, I always swam to the bottom! Somehow I can't orient myself in water and would probably drown immediately as I almost did when I was a kid. So that tends to put a crimp on water sports. I even chickened out of my kayak trip.

      The dance metaphor is apt - it takes two to tango, and no matter what my social skill, people just aren't interested in forming new relationships here past a certain age (typically college). You need to have both people participating to make it work. Plus, it's also a matter of sheer odds. The ratio of single men to women here is way skewed; I would put it on the order of 10-1. No one over 25 here is single or does not have several kids. If you're in Kansas, you must notice the same. As Scott Adams pointed out, making your luck better is also largely an effect of making your odds as good as possible while working on yourself as you describe-- "What you need is a plan that moves you from a low odds of success to higher odds. For example, after college I immediately left my tiny town for the better odds in the SF bay area. That's just one example. But think in terms of odds, and personal energy (fitness, diet) not passion."

  6. Hi folks. Thanks for the advice.

    I'm always cognizant of the fact that living in place and visiting are two totally different things. Add to that the fact that your mental state is totally different not having to work or be anywhere. I find myself constantly asking whether a place really is that much better, or if its rose-colored glasses that are coloring my view.

    That said, I've come to some conclusions. In the West, there is a bit more of the frontier mentality. People do come from all over, and hence are less bound to the clan they've had since birth and more open to new people. For someone like me without a family, that's appealing. They also do other things beside work/church/kids/spectator sports.

    Nobody comes to the Midwest, by and large, except as part of a job transfer or a spouse, or to go to school (and then they leave). Getting married/raising children is the only reason people live here, which I can tell you from extensive experience, and people who want something else leave and go somewhere else.

    This Reddit post says it perfectly: "Every winter I feel like my life shuts off." I can also tell you that I've missed out on a lot with my life essentially shutting down for six months out of a year. My physical and mental health takes a hit. As I get older, I jut can't continue to throw half a year away. That's half your life!

    Now if I can go to a place where those conditions are not there, and is more affordable, that would be ideal. Doesn't have to be L.A. I personally fell attracted to deserts, and I like it because it is as different as you can get in the U.S. However, I have the exact same trepidations. L. told me that her rent in Topanga is $2500 a month. My mortgage is only $535. But what are other possibilities? Chris Ryan went to Portland. Southern Californians are doing a reverse Tom Joad to Austin. New Orleans while it's still above water? I've even thought of the possibility of paying off my house and getting a job where I can travel in the winter. Somewhere else on the West Coast at least gives me the opportunity to visit. If this weeks' Archdruid is right, we may be getting enough climate refugees in the Midwest in the next decade here to make things more interesting, lol.

    I agree with the sentiment attributed to Teddy Roosevelt, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are." But I think I've taken that to its limits. Sometimes you have to move beyond it. Your gut tells you. I have plenty of personal reasons to want to move.

    In any case, it will be a while before I can do anything; I'm unexpectedly off today because my mom is in the hospital. So I guess it is fortunate that I went last week instead of this one.


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