Overweening Generalist

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Xmas-time and Memories of Warm Decembers in the Suburbs of Los Angeles

Almost everyone on our block had a swimming pool in their backyard, including us. You had to: the daily highs seem to average 90 Fahrenheit from June until September in the smoggy, endless East San Gabriel Valley sprawl near Los Angeles. 

But the few times the topic's come up with friends who didn't grow up in LA, they wondered if we ever went swimming in our pool on Christmas day, and the answer is no. (At least not that I recall.) Why? Because, starting around Halloween, Los Angeles becomes subject to hot, dry winds called "Santa Ana." And it's Fall, and when these incendiary winds sweep in from the Mojave Desert, your pool will become filled with leaves and palm fronds. If you were like me, and you were in charge of keeping the pool clean, you just covered the thing until April; it's not worth the work considering how little you'll use your pool on the shortened school-filled days of late Fall and throughout Winter.

Christmas was almost always presented to us through movies and TV as having a snowy backdrop. It had once snowed at our house, one Winter, during a freakish cold front moving down from Alaska, and our dichondra lawn was dusted with white, and this miraculous snow melted in an hour; that's as close as we came to the Madison Avenue/Currier and Ives/It's a Wonderful Life idea of how Christmas was supposed to look.

I believe I liked the idea of snow at Christmas, but knew I'd never get it, which was okay with me: I'd been cold before, when we stayed in the Sierras one time. I think by age 14 I had negotiated the "cozy" feeling of snowbanks and Christmas lights in the irreal reality of TV and film, but I knew we had it good when we went out to play with our new stuff on Christmas day in 75 degree temperature. Why? Because often, a week later, the Rose Parade in nearby Pasadena was shown all over the country, and famously, it would be sunny and warm and it made the real estate agents giddy: people in Iowa or Pennsylvania or some other place frozen over for months would see the parade on TV and would decide, once and for all, to settle down in Southern California. And could you blame them? 
So, Christmas comes and goes. In my dreamlike childhood and teenaged memories of balmy Christmas days in the quiet suburb of Los Angeles, none of us were truly "from here." Almost all of us had migrated a generation or two ago from somewhere else. Los Angeles itself had only really become a "city" in the 1880s. So, if your grandparents were all born in Los Angeles, your family was an exceedingly rare one. In fact, I personally knew no one who could claim that all four grandparents were from California. Often, mom and/or dad weren't even born in the state. My mother was born in Iowa, my father in Pasadena, but his father was from Michigan. This aspect of Southern California as destination led, I believe, to a permanent mode of psychological rootlessness, and it's part of what makes the state so wonderfully weird. 
Frank Lloyd Wright once said about this area of the world, "It is as if you tipped the United States up so all the commonplace people slid down there into Southern California." And the intellectual luminary, editor of The Nation and California historian Carey McWilliams answered back, "One of the reasons for this persistent impression of commonplaceness is, of course, that the newcomers have been stripped of their natural settings - their Vermont hills, their Kansas plains, their Iowa cornfields. Here their essential commonplaceness stands out garishly in the harsh illumination of the sun. Here every wart is revealed, every wrinkle underscored, every eccentricity emphasized."
                               snapshot of a small section of the San Gabriel Valley
What I remember most during the shortened December days of winter vacation from school was riding our bikes around town, listening to our new records, talking about girls at school, getting outside of ordinary feelings of time and schedules before the grind of school began again. 


rafa said...

hey, i made a comment about Terence McKenna on your blog a while ago and didn't get to see your answer on time...

here's what I do with plants:


I read a lot of your blog and we seem to have pretty much the same heroes (i'm kinda surprised about how little you talk about Borges, and I had never heard about Robert Anton Wilson though...)

michael said...

Wow! You use ayahuasca to treat alcoholism, depression and drug abuse? (Lo siento! Mi espanol es muy muy mal.)

I would write more on Borges, but I have seen very many other writers who have written tremendous things about him; I feel daunted.

I sincerely appreciate that you read this blog, Rafa. To know you're involved in this sacred plant and healing and you read this blog gives me a special thrill. I hope to not disappoint in the future!


SatoriGuy said...

I can kind of relate to this post in a Canadian sort of way, eh.

I recently moved from Toronto to Vancouver, and due to lack of funds this year, I`ll probably be spending this Christmas away from friends and family back east.

It'll be strange seeing prodigious amounts of rain instead of snow this year.

But with the dreary weather lately I'm beginning to question my motives for moving out here. But one day of sunshine will usually more than makes up for this when I get to see the towering mountains overlooking the dark blue ocean right outside my doorstep. I often think that people born and raised near mountains and the ocean take for granted the unique psychogeography of their surroundings.

In the end I think some of us may intuit these psychogeographical factors. Maybe that's the reason for the westward migration of adventurers and eccentric explorers that RAW and Bucky Fuller talked about?

michael said...

I agree that most seem to take for granted the geography and how it influences their thinking and unconscious processes. But then I think the bulk of what goes on between the ears seems largely taken-for-granted.

In my studies of how Los Angeles became a Big City, advertising pictures of orange trees and sunshine, the Mediterranean climate, and all the "health" this would bring to those ready to leave the cold East was big factor. But also: I think people though they could get away from their past there and remake themselves anew. I think when you're actually living in a geographical place is when it exerts subtle but profound influence on consciousness...Before that, it's an exciting idea. I saw lots of pictures of Tokyo before I went, but when I got there, it was like being on acid!

There's some interesting cognitive psychology about living where you have a view, and living near a body of water, and our deep, deep past as hominids.

I'm one of those who like the rain. But sometimes, for days on end, it can be a bit much. In Berkeley, we recently had the biggest series of storms as far as rainfall in a short period, that we'd had in 7 yrs. That got to be a bit much, even for me.

I love Vancouver and would like to visit again.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I was born in Northridge, Calif., and live in Canoga Park until about third grade, so I was interested in what it would be like to have continued to mark Christmas there. Oklahoma, where my family moved, is not exactly the frozen north, but it did get cold in winter and we do get snow, so it seemed like the Christmas in all of the carols.

When you heard carols about "dashing through the snow" did you ever feel you were missing something?

michael said...

I think I felt like "dashing through the snow" would be fun, but then, I'd like to instantly opt out when I felt like I had to spend 15 minutes packing on clothes, boots, long underwear, just to go out and face a day.

I did live in Denver for two years as a teenager, so I finally saw the snowy xmas side of it for real. By age 17 I was eager to move back to LA, and did.

Anonymous said...

I live up norf in england, and all we get is sludge bassically; we used to get a lot of snow but as the years go by the weather seems to more and more prefer rain.

I would love to have a backdrop of a moutain near my city, I have never actually seen a mountain other than on pictures. Seems to me like a rediculsously Beatiful piece of nature to have in your back garden.

Where I live is partly on the Peack District which has its moments, especcially in summer.

I often take my city and surroundings for granted. It seems rhat there is renaissance going on in my city;, I think that is to do with students trying to give it a cultural Identity, though it mostly consists of microbreweries and "real" ale.

michael said...

The grass is always greener: I just looked at a few Peak District websites, photos of the Ntl Park (most visited in the world after Mt Fuji), and it looks magical to me. And all that literature set there.

What we really want is something different from what we take-for-granted. The San Gabriel Valley basin's geography really is fantastic. Not only the shot of the mountains there, but if you drive for 45 mins-hour you're on the beach, watching the gals in bikinis, surfers. On certain days you can ski and surf on the same day, but that really has to be your agenda.

It's a Mediterranean climate, and the weather forecaster has a very easy job. Just remember this line: "Late night and early morning low clouds and some fog along the coast, clearing by the late morning; temperatures in the high 60s/low 70s at the beaches, 78 in Los Angeles, in the low 80s in the valleys, with some areas reaching towards 90 in the hottest valleys." That's about 75% of the year, give or take a few degrees here and there, depending on the time of year. Average rainfall in LA is 15 inches, which qualifies it as a temperate desert, although a vast PR campaign has been attacking this idea for a long time - at least 50 years. It's mostly Chamber of Commerce/real estate people, who found the term "desert" is not good for sales.It' s easy to find articles that say "Stop calling LA a desert!" and they blame it on San Francisco (the two cities have a longtime rivalry), and you'll often see the admission, "Just because LA has to bring its water from 100 miles away doesn't make it a desert..." (The movie Chinatown - to me, one of the greatest films ever made - is based on a historical truth about LA's history: how they stole the water from the Owens Valley in order to make a viable real estate boom.)

The problem with LA is everyone wants to live there, and it became unliveable, to me. I still love the city, the area. But now I live in Berkeley, on the East Bay near San Francisco, and it's in technically in the same state as LA, politically, but in most ways it feels like a different state to me.

Your description of the renaissance in your area fits the classic picture: lower the rents and tax rates to allow artists to move in (craft brewing is a natural), this attracts other creative types, and pretty soon a once-dead section becomes "hip" or "cool" and the professionals who want to be hip spend their money there. Rents begin to increase. Unless there are zoning laws or local control over "growth" nuts, you'll get a Starbucks...and that's a sign its "cool" days are ending, no longer hip, and the artisans who can't handle the rent leave. I hope the brewers stay, though. A good medium-sized brewery tends to be a healthy marker for a local economy. Also: gays and bookstores.

Jeez, I've been reading way too much on cities lately.

I'd LOVE to spend a month in the Peak District!

Anonymous said...

The weather in LA sounds like the complete opposite of here in england, especcialy in the north; although we get a little more variability it doesn't go much either way of mild.

Your description of city development fits pretty closely with what has been going on for the last 10 years or so, here in sunny sheffield.

The only problem with the development and the kind of architectural design that came along was that is was pretty vacuous semi-modernist stuff, now we have a mishmash, some of it very interesting set against stuff that is just plain and uninteresting.
The best commentator on english architecture and sense of place is Jonathan meades, he reels off some really good kennings of why what tony blairs time in office was like and what it meant for architecture (he' funny to boot, migth take a while to get used to his humour though)

michael said...

I've never read Jonathan Meades, and I hope to incorporate "kennings" in my own speech and writing.

Aldous Huxley had some acute observations about the proto-Disney-like juxtapositions of architectural styles in Los Angeles. It's pretty hilarious. There's a long "feud" between NY and LA (text vs. video), LA and SF (La-La-Land vs. intellectual progressive hedonism), and SF and NY (who's more artsy and Euro-cosmopolitan?). I've read a lot of this (dumb) discourse, but some of it is funny as hell, like the profoundly literate Lewis Lapham, who grew up in SF very wealthy but has become a "traitor" to his class. His grandad founded an oil company and his father was Mayor of SF. Lapham lived for awhile in LA. Here's a line (one of many) about LA, from a 1978 Harper's essay, which made me laff out loud:

"Everybody is always in the process of becoming somebody else. If the transformations can take place in the temporal sphere of influence, why can't they also take place in the spiritual sectors? Perhaps this is why California is so densely populated with converts of one kind or another. A young man sets out on the road to Ventura, but somewhere on the Los Angeles Freeway he has a vision. God speaks to him through the voice of a disc jockey broadcasting over Radio Free Orange County, and he understands that he has lived his life in vain. He throws away his credit cards and commits himself to Rolfing and salad."

It's hyperbolic, sure. But the satire feels like Nathanael West or Evelyn Waugh updated. There's enough truth there. Lapham loves NY, and I'm fine with whatever Lapham does.