West Coast Reflections

Just as this year’s Fall foliage was flourishing throughout Pittsburgh I slipped off to the west coast to meet my parents who were on their own California vacation. It was a bit of a Southland homecoming for all of us; we hadn’t been together in L.A. since our family lived in the area in the 2000s. I was happy for a quick escape to warmer climes before settling in for the long Pittsburgh winter.

It was a relatively rare rainy day in L.A. when I arrived. On approach to LAX the San Bernardino Valley was filled with fog.

Things were already clearing up over the Los Angeles basin.

I know it’s cliche to be an In N Out acolyte (and the fandom has seemed less special with the franchise’s gradual expansion eastward), but I’ll always be a true believer. It’s a tradition to make the location on South Sepulveda my first stop in the city when arriving at LAX.

When my parochial homerism kicks in I wax nostalgic for an earlier era when the “secret menu” was passed along via oral tradition, before every special order and menu hack was widely available on the internet.

The drive up the coast along PCH triggered major sense memory. My parents and I exchanged observations about how the route had changed during our absence: new development, businesses being replaced, more houses on the hillside, etc. But beyond just noting particular details or comparing how the specifics of the scene matched my memories of it, the experience of once again charting a course that I had traveled so many times before evoked a visceral and encompassing sense of “being back in it”; a sort of enveloping phenomenological familiarity where experience and recollection were merged.

At dusk we stopped at Malibu Bluffs park. Despite having lived essentially across the street for more than a decade, my personal experience with the park is scant (my enduring association with the Bluffs is as my local polling place where I voted in my first election as an idealistic 18-year-old).

Driving Malibu Canyon evoked even stronger sense associations than PCH. Familiar routes of transit provide potent affective anchors for personal memory; I suppose because they gradually accrete over long periods of daily routine. Even when we’re accustomed to “zoning out” (or “tuning in” to the car radio) during regular or habitual travel, passing through those liminal spaces between where we came from and where we’re going. Experiences typically relegated to the categories of boredom or banality in our consciousness. Although the twists and turns of Malibu Canyon require active attention, and the spectacularity of the surrounding landscape lends an air of sightseeing to every passage.

My mental mapping or affective cartography of Southern California extends even to the iconography of the local road markers. For instance, the freeway signs for particular exits that I would take to get to a friend’s house bear special emotional resonance. But certain major routes also carry an iconic presence. My late friend Blair kept his bedroom walls decorated with all sorts of ephemera and accoutrements he collected in the course of his carousing, and I was always envious of the 101 freeway entrance sign he had acquired when a neighborhood on-ramp was under construction.

Two weeks prior to this L.A. trip I attended a fundraising event at the home of some recent acquaintances in Pittsburgh. I found myself in an archetypal introvert’s hell: alone at a social engagement surrounded by strangers. I loitered around the backyard, drink in hand, making my best effort to force introductions and sustain small talk.

Naturally that untiring icebreaker “Where are you from?” was a common conversational query. I met people who were from the Pittsburgh area or elsewhere in Appalachia, as well as more distant points of origin such as Ireland, Kenya, and South Africa. But when it was my turn to chime in, I could only manage an overly complicated and exasperating explanation that confounded the good intentions of my interlocutors.

I’ve always found it difficult to explain myself. It’s a quirk of character that I could attribute to a number of possible factors: a natural interiority (or “rich inner life” as Ignatius J. Reilly might say) that tends toward an immobilizing overthinking; a personal predilection for (and greater comfort with) the written word over speech; and an innate and insidious arrogance borne out of the implicit belief that one is too uniquely complicated to easily convey in words (the very real fact that the fullness of our selves and our experience far surpasses the limits of our language is no excuse for narcissism in the negotiation of social niceties).

Lately it’s been even more difficult than usual to account for myself. It really feels like I’ve lost the plot. Any previous sense of self, or purpose, or cohesive guiding narrative has had to be discarded. In the last few years I have seen significant personal endeavors that were supposed to shape the future direction of my life either end abruptly or gradually fade away to reveal their immaterial and ultimately illusory nature. I have felt simultaneously stuck in place and adrift, while always subject to the vagaries of forces beyond my control or comprehension. Discovering the completion of my doctorate to be a proverbial dead end has not helped matters. Now I find myself feeling more untethered and out of place than ever: split between a precarious part-time position of endlessly ambiguous standing, and an in-the-weeds research appointment working on a solitary project that I struggle to articulate even to myself.

I’ve written before about the particular difficulty I have in answering that question, “where are you from?” having moved so often and not experiencing a prolonged duration or strong connection with a single place. Malibu would be a reasonable response to that question, since I lived there from middle school through college, a formative time for me personally and for the development of many enduring relationships. In fact, for a time Malibu was my readymade response to the “hometown” question. But I nearly always self-consciously qualified this claim with almost apologetic assurances that my family were not millionaires or movie stars. And Malibu may be in L.A. county, but claiming Los Angeles as my home city was always out of the question due to fastidious geographic exactitude (which is really a certain snobbishness about zip codes that considers it untruthful when someone claims to be from Chicago when they’re actually from Naperville).

If it’s not evident enough from these self-indulgent ramblings, I’ve been dealing with a lot and have been blessed with an overabundance of time and solitude. So this trip back West not only provided a nice relief from my “rich inner life” but also welcome reassurance about a bedrock of place in my past. The comfort and familiarity found in my old haunting grounds, even after an extended absence, afforded me time and space to process where I’ve been and where I might be going. Naturally the presence of my parents flavored this reflective posture (I’ve sometimes mused that the geographical influences of my upbringing have contributed to my personal constitution via an alchemy of Southern faux folksiness, plain Midwestern earnestness, and a slow-paced California spaciness).

It wasn’t all blasts from the past: there were first-time experiences, too! We had lunch at Paradise Cove which I had never been to before. My Mom found that hard to believe considering how many often she had dined there, so I had to remind her that she had never seen fit to bring me along.

This year I’ve dipped my toes in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I consider that an accomplishment.

The Dodgers were eliminated from the playoffs while we were in Los Angeles. My Dad pouted a bit but didn’t let it dampen his spirits for the rest of the visit. As someone whose (admittedly short-lived) sports fandom has been entirely limited to the Pittsburgh Pirates, I struggle to sympathize. The trip was tinged with more loss: Just a few days after I returned home the news broke that Mike Davis had died. I had learned of his ill health through some excellent interviews and retrospectives published this summer. Coincidentally, at the beginning of this year I started reading City of Quartz for the third time. It’s one of my favorite books – not just academic books but overall – that I have ever read. I was preparing for the start of my research scholarship and so I returned to that text to be reminded of the sort of scholarship that really moves me, and of the kind of book – multidisciplinary, politically committed, engaging and accessible to broad audiences – that I would hope to write. If not something to aspire to, then an ongoing source of inspiration.

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