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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Freedom and loyalty

I'm a pretty loyal person, when you come right down to it.  I'll stick with you, for the most part, if I've decided to be with you in the first place.

As I've gotten older, I've become more willing to admit that I don't always benefit from just doing what I've always done.  I don't use Scott toilet paper any more, because Honey convinced me some time ago that it was terribly uncomfortable.  I'm happy with Trader Joe's tp, but don't feel some unending bond with it.  If something better came along, I'd go with it. 

The same thing happened with orange juice.  Tropicana didn't deserve the loyalty I gave it, and now I am happier with unpasteurized from Trader Joes, or, preferably, Fresh and Easy.  See how flexible I've become?

My loyalty to products is now more carefully given to those I perceive as truly worthy and exemplary.  Whole Foods fudge bars, Noah's jalapeno cream cheese.  The latter has become so difficult to obtain--Noah's having stopped producing it in to-go tubs--that I have to beg bagelistas (that's what bagel people are called, right?) to dispense it for me into soup containers.  Having tried last week to be "brave" (as I referred to this trial) by having plain cream cheese on Trader Joe's bagels, rather than jalapeno cream cheese on Noah's bagels, I succumbed to "loyalty" and went to Noah's today.  It was with a sense of real relief that I walked away with my jalapeno cream cheese soup cup well packed by the bagelista.

My loyalty extends, of course, beyond the bounds of products to people and more ineffable things.  A recent crisis--which is best left off blogville--has led me to wonder about others' loyalty to me, but, fortunately, that is not a subject I wish to engage with today.

I remember many years ago driving a group of folks to the airport.  I was working in my first adult job, as the manager of the circulation desk of alma mater library.  My boss, a wonderful and kind woman whose death a few years ago from breast cancer grieves me to this day, had asked me to drive her and some other librarians to the airport.  For those folks not familiar with library things, librarians are the professional folks who went to library school.  They are faculty at most universities, including alma mater.  Should I call alma mater 2nd tier liberal arts school?  No, best not at least not in a post about loyalty.  People like me, who checked out the books at the desk (and managed the checker outers and shelvers and such) were not librarians.  We were staff.

Anyway, there I was, in my early twenties, driving these folks to the airport and one of them starts asking me about music.  He was cool and I liked him.   (So did my boss, I think, but she didn't date him, since she was dating this even cooler librarian who drank single malt scotch and was kind to her son).  I was then in a deep Indigo Girls fan zone and cool librarian was talking to me about them.  He said something that stuck with me.  "I bet you'll keep buying all their albums, even when you don't like them any more.  Some bands are like that for people."

He was right, for a while.   I kept buying their albums.  Seemed obligatory.  I didn't buy the last one or two, though.

Now, though, I mostly listen to podcasts and music I already know.  I'm hopelessly out of date on music, though occasionally discover a band I like by listening to Terry Gross.  Which, of course, makes me one of those middle aged liberal NPR listening types.  Still, the Carolina Chocolate Drops are awesome and just because I "discovered" them on Fresh Air, doesn't mean anything negative about them.  Or me.  Plus, mostly I listen to podcasts and am more of a fan of Planet Money than I am of any band.  Which still makes that whole bit about NPR true.

Which brings me back to the ostensible subject of this post.  I just finished Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.  I know, I know.  Oprah.  The National Book Award snub.  The Time magazine cover story.  Blah Blah Blah.

Thing is, though, he's one of those writers.  Can't put the book down (even at 561 pages).  Feel all the emotions that are there.  Savor all the wonderful bits of writing.  And the characters.  And the story.  And the structure.

Feel genuinely sad and happy about the end.  Put it on the shelf and look wistfully at it.  Think about how much I remember (still, eight years on) of Corrections.  Still sort of regret having sold my true first edition of same with the erratum on ebay.  (Pages 430 and 431 were reversed and FSG put a slip of paper into the first printing indicating the error).

I think I got about $50 for it, but whatever.  I want it back now.  I suppose I could buy another, but it wouldn't be the same.

My point, I guess, is that I fell for Franzen like very few other authors.  He writes it.  I read it.  Then I wait for the next one.  The waiting isn't active.  I don't go to fan sites.  But it's there, somewhere in my brain.  It gets rekindled when I read an essay of his.  Or someone brings him up.  Or asks if the "great American novel" is possible.  All of this for a guy who writes about families.  And the Midwest.  (The bird content of Freedom did make it even better).  So, I'll wait until 2018.  Or whenever the next one comes.

I guess Patrick (the librarian) was right, but about the wrong thing.  I let the Indigo Girls go.  As yet, Franzen (and a few other writers) get the bucks every time the publish.  No kindle on iPad for them either.  The real book.  On the shelf.

If you like American literary fiction, ignore the noise over Oprah, Time, and the rest.  Go buy Corrections and Freedom.  Read them.  Be prepared to give some of your time away to them.  In the end, though, if you're even a little like me, you'll be glad you did.

I can't lend you my copy of Freedom, though.  It's staying here.  I learned my lesson letting the last book go.  It never came back.  But I'm still loyal and I still miss it.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Disrupting "normal"

Living in a large city like Los Angeles and taking things for granted from the good (there's bahn mi available near my work) to the once-would-have-been-extraordinary to the now ordinary (there are also lots of Starbucks around) to the banal (how many very ordinary pharmacy chain store outlets do we need exactly?) makes it easy to be lulled into a kind of complacency. Things disappear (Chris and Pitts, for example) and things persist (Philippe's). Why am I hung up on restaurants today?

A couple of weeks ago I was at a celebration of my university's (commuter state) founders day. It was very hot (in what passes for Fall in Southern California) and we had been in the celebration tent for far too long. The speaker, when he finally arrived, was decent. He's the author of a book about the sub-region in which commuter state is located. He talked at some length about the history of the place. Much of what he said I knew, but some of it was new to me. The following weekend, Honey and I happened to be near campus and I drove her around a little telling her about the new information I now had lodged into my brain from the talk.  About the fair and the horse races and about the now disappeared football team.

I like thinking about the history of places, both recent and distant. I'm especially intrigued by that living in Los Angeles. Because I grew up in Atlanta, the places were all new and exurby. Post Sherman, Atlantans love nothing more than tearing down and redoing.

Los Angeles, on the other hand, keeps some (but not, by any means, all) of its history around. You can see Victorian homes, mid-century ranches, Greene and Greenes, missions, and new mcmansions.  There are even restaurants (see how the brain makes loops) that date back 100 years. Beef French dip, hot mustard, chili with, and a custard at Philippe's please.

I've always liked that about LA. I love our O'Keefe and Merritt brown stove with its NuTone copper hood.

I loved learning last week that the area our laundry room and half bath are in is properly (in SoCal) called a "service porch." And so it shall be henceforth in my mind.

Ok, so we don't live in a mid century architectural masterpiece.  No one was selling a Lautner for the mid-200s when we bought our house.  Still, it's got some fine mid century touches.  And laminate flooring.  You don't get laminate flooring in a Lautner.  Nope.

Anyway, I was thinking yesterday, while waiting in traffic about these things we don't pay attention to until it occurs to us to do so.  I was not far from commuter state, where the preserved orange groves remain and I noticed a sign waver.  Sign wavers are not an unusual sight in LA, so I looked, noted that he was holding a sign for a Halloween store and wearing a mask.  He was dancing and waving the sign, as was to be expected.  But he was also occasionally stopping his dancing and moved in a threatening manner at particular passing cars.  I'm sure he was doing this because of the scary mask he had on.  His intent was, no doubt, benign.

The effect was chilling.  Really.  I felt relieved when he did it to the car in front of mine and accelerated quickly through the intersection when the stuck traffic allowed me to.  I thought most of the way home about why he seemed so scary.  It was, I suppose, the juxtaposition of his easy dancing, the sign, the normal street corner, and these quick, sudden violent movements that kept intruding on that scene.  Normal.  Then not.

It happened that I had been at another campus in my University's system earlier that day.  I had not been to that campus before, even though it's our closest sister campus.  It, in fact, started as a satellite campus of ours.  (I am aware, by the way, that this level of detail makes figuring out which campus is which pretty easy.  Since I don't think I have many non-friend readers, I'm going to persist with the semi revelatory.  Non-California friends are welcome to ask privately for details in case you don't want to figure out which campuses are which).

Anyway, sister campus has a lovely setting.  It's in a valley, near the ocean, surrounded by mountains and touched by sea breezes.  Commuter state, on the other hand, has a hot tent.  No, let me be fair, it's a beautiful campus, just in a hot part of SoCal.

Sister campus was a long time coming and many many sites were considered.  Several of them were met by strong community opposition.  Finally they settled on the site of an about to be closed mental hospital.  A rather notorious one.

We met in sister campus' spectacular library, the only modern architecture building on campus.  It looks out across this series of smaller Spanish colonial buildings.  Some of them have been converted into office and classroom space.  Many of them sit empty, waiting to be retrofitted with modern HVAC (rather than steam heating through asbestos laden walls) and ADA compliant entrances and bathrooms.  As a colleague from sister campus said to me yesterday, "it costs a million dollars to walk into one of these buildings."

My boss and I walked around a little after the meeting and I bought Honey a t-shirt from the campus with their cheesy mascot on it.  (Not that commuter state's mascot lacks cheese-factor, mind you).

I realized that I had taken that the normal that was a quiet Friday at a small University for granted.  But somewhere in my head and in that space there were other echos.  Echos of people whose lives were trapped in that place.  Of the past that is being written over with each of the million dollar entrances into each of those unrefurbished buildings.

It's the same kind of echo that I have always tried to make myself hear on the battlefields of the Civil War.  It's easy enough to stand in Sharpsburg or Mannassas and think that Antietam and Bull Run are theoretical battles where theoretical people died.  (Speaking of the Civil War and battlefields, I cannot recommend enough the recent Slate series on touring them.  Go read it when you're done with me today).

Same building, different purpose, different era.

A lot of these building were built with New Deal money.  The Great Society indeed.

Seems innocuous enough on first glance, right?

As one commenter on a 2002 Los Angeles Weekly article said about this place, where he had been confined as a child:

Now and then, when I think about those days, I Google the names of the people I knew there. So far, only two staff members have shown up--and no patients. It makes me wonder whether I'm a rarity because I'm still alive. Another possibility I've considered is that they've changed their names and don't want to be found. It's hard to face the ghosts of such a twisted past without someone who shared it to reflect with.

Since I don't share that past, I can't know what that person experienced, any more than I can know what Sullivan Ballou thought as he wrote his wife before the First Battle of Bull Run, where he was killed:

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again.

What I do know is that when I stand in these places, rich with the sacrifices and mistakes of the past, I would do well to pay attention to that small voice echoing in my head or in the space.  I should have stopped and looked more closely.  The interactive map of sister campus has all the unrefurbished buildings in gray.  They don't "do" anything when you click on them.  But standing near them, they do speak to what was once there.  I will go back to sister campus soon and look at them again, I think.  And listen.  

I am not nostalgic for the time of service porches, copper fixtures, and steam asbestos heating. 

Things go away, sometimes, for good reasons.  Sister campus is surely and better use for that space than its previous incarnation.  Soon enough, Halloween will come and go and the guy with the mask will leave the corner.  

And we will all remember.  And all forget.