Road Dog

Of all the folks in my bio-family, my Grandma Dottie (Dad’s mum) and I are the only ones with black hair. On top of that, we have an uncanny facial resemblance and an equally spooky penchant for beach living, coffee, and writing long, pissed-off letters. Her mother passed away in childbirth in 1930 when she was 13, a tragedy that continues to reverberate to this day. With her father’s subsequent remarriage a few months later, she went to live with her own Grandmother and was forced to become exceptionally independent at quite a young age. Part of that independence was a special license to drive a car at the age of 14. The photo here is of her at age 15 at her graduation with her car, a gift from her father.

Whenever I tear down the California freeways, stomping on it at 95, I think of her, driving fearlessly through the canyons from Beverly Hills to what is now Watts to attend school. During WWII, her husband enlisted and ended up on ship in the South Pacific while she kept the home fires burning. A true Rosie the Riveter, she lapped pistons onto planes until 2am, after which she and her mates would go bowling to wind down. I love the idea of my 26-year-old grandmother driving through 1940s Los Angeles in the dead of night, illuminated by streetlights, pulling into a bowling alley parking lot at 3am.

One night when she was on this shift, she got a phone call from her husband (whose location had remained undisclosed), telling her he was up in the Bay Area getting ready to ship out probably the next morning and could she please come now. She began to weep because she didn’t know if she’d ever see him again and she didn’t have enough gas ration coupons to make the trip. Her coworkers rallied, pooled together their coupons, and gave her enough to go. She ran home, got the baby (my Dad), and drove through the black of night from Los Angeles all the way up the vast emptiness of early 1940s California to the Bay. 400 miles. No cell phone. No callboxes. No nothing. Just her faith and an abiding sense of trust that it would be all right.

“What was like for you, that night?” I asked her recently, “Did the 5 even exist then? Weren’t you scared?”

She paused and said, “You know, you just didn’t think about it. When you want something so badly, you’re so focused and you just do it, you make it happen, and I did.”

So I think of her, and that night, whenever I traverse the now-populated corridors of the 101 and the 5, holding her faith and trust close to my own heart and hoping that I can be just as brave, just as resolute, and that strong in faith that it will be all right.

The Poppy Fields

People generally come in one of two varieties – those who stay in their hometown (whether a depressing little steel-mill burg or a palm tree-punctuated paradise), and those who leave it. I’m a leaver. So are most of my friends. Some places seem harder to extract oneself from than others – I guess when you’ve got nothing to look forward to but a career in checkout at Wal-Mart or the sterility of a vast suburb filled with faux-Spanish Revival McMansions, it’s a no-brainer. In other cases, it’s not so simple.

I’ve been in love with two small-town men now and let me tell you, if I was suspicious of small towns before, I’m now positively paranoid. Both (the towns, not the men) had striking similarities – a verdant greenness bordering on the obscene, a plethora of pastoral fields, and a veneer of bucolic serenity thinly veiling a rabid insularity and a drinking culture that would make Amy Winehouse and Brendan Behan look like teetotaling Mouseketeers.

In my ex-husband’s small Irish border village there were two tiny convenience marts, a post office, a library, one daily bus into and out of town, and five bars. And not one ATM. Getting a job in a local factory was considered an enviable gig and the proportion of out-of-wedlock infants born to teen parents was inversely proportional to the number of college degrees earned by the town’s kids (to my knowledge: zero). There was an uncomfortable element of schadenfreude to the failures of one’s peers (for example, my ex having gone off to America and come back with little to show for it) and the hangover of the historical Irish suspicion of success and concepts of ‘gettin’ notions’ served to keep any inappropriate ambition in check. Expectations, in short, were low, and time passed with that syrupy rural slowness in which the long summer days bleed into one another in a way others might find peaceful but I find numbing.

In my most recent boyfriend’s (‘Tree Guy’) West Marin town, a glittering jewel on the the tip of the Point Reyes Peninsula, there is one bar, and it is all that matters. Other than the town’s notorious insularity and locals only ethos (‘our beach, our waves, our girls, go home!’), it is its singular calling card and the hub around which all spokes rotate, and has been so since 1851 (it’s also got the only ATM for miles – heh – tell me that isn’t strategic marketing). The topsy-turvy little hamlet is the kind of place that makes it difficult for some to know which way is up, its gestalt a heady brew of spectacular natural beauty, 60s counterculture radicalism, redneck isolationism, straight-up self-indulgent hedonism, and a moral slipperiness that seems to breed adults in an arrested state of adolescence.

The first time Tree Guy took me to hang out there, I was keenly reminded of my misspent youth in San Diego, afternoons and nights on the beach, at house parties and nightclubs, in parks and parking lots; drinking, dressing up, being seen. Back then there was just as much mischief and mayhem and dysfunction going on as anywhere else, and a lot of that same ‘locals only’ vibe, but the difference, and I recognize this only now, was this sense that we were all going somewhere. Maybe we didn’t know where, exactly, but the forward trajectory was palpable. It wasn’t so much a ‘goal-oriented’ mindset as it was some sort of expectation out of life, the sense of putting one foot in front of another, being open to possibilities, and keeping it moving.

This same sense of motion feels largely absent in Tree Guy’s hometown, with the requisite exceptions. The town’s progeny tend, true to form, to be disproportionately divided amongst two groups: those who venture over the mountain and keep roaming, and those who either never leave or boomerang back and are suspended, like amber, inside the prism of their history. It seems this place produces either exceptional high achievers or stunning underachievers, boasting more than it’s fair share of legal troubles and substance abuse woes.

On the one hand it seems a lawyer-heavy town, producing soy-eating kids who grow up to score their JDs before 30, which for such a lawless place is pretty interesting, don’t ya think? Tree Guy once commented that very few of the girls get out, but the ones who manage it tend to do extremely well for themselves, which I find true across most subcultures – the females who do rise above do it with a vengeance. There also seems to be a healthy crop of musicians, artists, and DJs whose work is, and I mean this sincerely, really good.

On the other hand, there is the dark side of those who don’t make it out, whether literally or metaphorically, who cling to their town tribalism as fiercely as they do the bottle, only growing older and more fossilized in the nautilus shell of their pathology, days and months and years disappearing beneath the fog and eucalyptus groves. There’s a heavy incidence of alcoholism (as is probably true of many small towns), yet an attempt at sobriety is met with, on rare occasions, awe and admiration or, more ordinarily, derision – as though it were an indication of a lack of (rather than evidence of) character or, worst of all, a compromised masculinity – which is nothing short of criminal, in my very unsolicited opinion. The bitter aftertaste of that Irish ‘gettin’ notions’ and ‘not knowin’ yerself’ rises in my throat when I witness this betrayal and the pressure to remain complacent, stagnant, to just drink a beer and pretend everything’s OK while the years flow by like the tide and lives fall apart in spectacular fashion.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty about both places that I deeply appreciate, and I met some priceless people that I have a sincere fondness for, but for me there is a genuine terror of the way consciousness and evolution are held hostage by complacency and how time passes like molasses, the narcotic torpor of summer days on the boozy beach giving way to winter mornings beneath the dripping canopy in an endless, hypnotic, poisonous cycle, all ticking by and melting into the same narcoleptic river of time, day in and day out, everyone asleep in the poppy fields, dreaming without waking.

You Never Know Where You’re Going To Find Your Gurus

The dogs don’t wake up and think about all they’ve got to do that day in order to build a better future. They don’t have a stretch and a yawn and then ruminate about how bad they were the day before. They don’t worry much or jack up their cortisol levels with too little sleep and too much stress. The dogs are little Zen monks incarnate; ever present, ever attentive, possessed of blissfully uncomplicated thoughts: Treats. Dinner. Pee. Sniff. Belly rub. Mommy!

 

Even when they’ve been beaten, mistreated, half-starved or dumped, they get over it and move on, forever happy in the moment as they get some grub, exercise, or affection. I could learn a lot from these guys.

 

Years ago I worked for the coolest neurologist (whom I called The Kahuna, to his endless amusement and pride), a specialist in pain and addiction, whose wife was a fiery Irish Catholic-turned-Buddhist. He had an awesome assistant whom I used to shoot the breeze with on the phone once in a while. One afternoon while engaging in a conversation with her that was heavily loaded on my part with perhaps this and maybe that and generally suiting up for a long session of The What If Game, she said to me, plain as you please, ‘I don’t worry about the future. The future takes care of itself,’ which shut me up posthaste and stopped me dead in my ever-fretting tracks.

 

When I told The Kahuna about this and waxed rhapsodically about how lovely and brilliant she was, he said to me, ‘That’s the thing. You never know where you’re going to find your gurus.’

A little 4-pound blast furnace of a Chihuahua. A dreadlocked sister behind her beige desk. A rasta with no ego. A quirky, hoppy little raven prying open the trash can. You just have to keep your eyes, and your heart, open.