Category Archives: Bolinas

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.

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Behind The Green Wall

tamalpaisJust about five years ago and at my wit’s end, I sent my ex-husband packing back to Ireland, duffel bag in hand, hoping that some quality time at home would help him sort himself out. With incredible naïveté, I booked him a flight on Virgin Air, a British carrier, rather than on Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline. Alcoholic Paddy + Nordie accent + heartbreak + uptight British fellow passengers + free booze = all bad. Calling his brother the next morning to see if he’d landed in Dublin safely, I instead learned that he’d gotten drunk, mouthed off to an old lady and told a London peeler to go fuck himself. On the plane. Shortly after September 11th. Yeah. I know. Obviously, he didn’t make the connecting flight at Heathrow, and instead was led off the plane in handcuffs and given a two-week stay at Her Majesty’s Prison Wormwood Scrubs, where the guards were actually kind enough to let me speak with him by phone (you have to give it to the English, they are just unfailingly polite).

Ever the optimist, a few months later I packed my own bag and headed off to Ireland – on Aer Lingus, natch – for the purposes of seeing whether a potential reconciliation and a possible move overseas might be in order. I had never met his family nor seen his wee village, Castlefinn, which rode the border of the Republic and Northern Ireland with uneasiness. All I knew was that he’d helped his Da plant 80 trees around the perimeter of their property (‘Eighty?!’ I had asked incredulously, ‘do you mean eight?’) and that he came from a village of about 700 people. Seven. Hundred. People.

Now. I have grown up in an urban environment my whole life. I was born in Berkeley and always lived either around there, in San Diego, or in San Francisco. There have pretty much always been 700 people on my block. I cannot even imagine a village of so few, but I was willing to, you know, check it out. And man, it was green. Emerald Hills all around. And fields, lot of fields. And a pretty river with a gorgeous bridge, and plenty of cows and sheep and ravens and…….pubs. One shop, one post office, one police station, and three bars. And not much else. The nearest ATM was 10 miles away, in Ballybofey, and the bus to Letterkenny, the main town in County Donegal, came once in the morning and once at night.

I knew from the minute I arrived that the spell between us was broken, I wasn’t going to live there, and that we were probably going to break up, even if I didn’t want to admit it to myself or anyone else. My visit just happened to coincide with the wettest summer ever on record in Ireland and the dampness matched my mood. We tried to make the best of it, taking slow walks in the forest and dells, playing the child’s game of ‘soldiers’ with reeds plucked from the ground, putting foxglove flowers on our fingers and pretending to have a good time. On the second or third day, I finally broke down outside the abandoned train station in Castlefinn and cried so hard – in big, wracking gasps – that I was snotty and had nothing to wipe my nose on – a total spiritual low. I knew then it was over, but I spent the next month running around the island anyway, hellbent on visiting the northernmost (Malin Head, so completely awesome) and southernmost (Cape Clear) points in the country. We had some good times, definitely, but it was my third extended visit to Ireland and the first where I sensed the dark side of Irish life – the passivity, depression, fatalism, isolation, and brokenness that you don’t see on cutesy postcards or while wilding away the weekend in Dublin. I had this deep sense of the country as a damp, torpid green prison, and for the first time I could not wait to get back to my own loud, hectic, obnoxious country – freeways! Strong coffee! Carne asada! Black people!

Fast forward several years and the man I’m with now is from Bolinas, a mythical small town down an unmarked (because the locals tear the signs down) road way the hell on the other side of Mount Tamalpais. His family has a house there and he and his brothers are attached, by history and spiritual orientation, to the town. It’s a place known for its attempt at being a hippie utopia (gone wrong, but that, again, is another day, another blog) and as a haven for outlaws and renegades; fiercely insular, sketchy for outsiders, and achingly beautiful. There are few vistas as gorgeous as the edge of the mesa above Duxbury Reef, and a childhood spent surfing on Bolinas Beach seems idyllic. Still, when I’m there, the huge green wall that is Mount Tam spooks me, makes me feel cut off from the world, and when I window shop life there, imagining living behind that massive ridgeline, I shiver (ironically, the spot on the beach where locals pass their weekends in a beery haze is called The Green Wall, and no, I’m not linking to any photos of it, damn it, as I don’t want the Bolinas Border Patrol to come looking for me).

‘Babylon,’ the Bolinas locals are fond of calling the City, with a tone of derision and mistrust, safe in their cozy green pocket wedged between the ocean and the mountain, where my town looks like a distant, glowing grid when it’s not shrouded in fog. But I like the City. I love anonymity. I like people minding their own damn business. I revel in the facelessness of urban life, the ability to blend into the river of people and be as known or unknown as you wish to be. I like the way one can disappear in a city, where no one on the bus or the street knows you or your dirty laundry, where you could be anyone, anything, and the only time someone knows your business is when you let them. In the City you develop relationships, of course, little bonds that fuse during one’s daily life – with your barista, neighbor, Steve at Naked Eye video, whatever………..but it’s because you choose to, not by default or simply due to proximity.

At the same time, City life gets to you – the endless jockeying for parking, the astronomical rents, its growing function as a playground for the white and Asian affluent, the political correctness – and there are days when I long for the mythical Simple Life: a man and a dog and a baby on the beach, no bloodthirsty landlords and no fistfights over the last spot on the street. A yard to grow vegetables in, lots of room for my dogs to frolic, and no telephone wires outside the living room window. If only I had the cojones to give up the nail shacks, the plentiful cafes and vast supermarkets, the blessed anonymity and autonomy and give in to the seductive call of life behind the green wall, where the passion flower vines climb over the houses and time moves thick and slow like molasses.