Friday, October 26, 2007

A Weird Offer

I came across this Letter to the Editor in the Times yesterday, and wanted to share it. As the writer says, this event is absurd in a way that seems somehow particularly California. Here's the letter, copied from the Times website:

To the Editor:

It was evening of the third day of fires whipped by the infamous Santa Ana winds. It felt like sunset on another planet as I saw a truck drive slowly by with a driver staring up at the palm tree in our front yard.

Later, there was a knock on the door. I answered. It was the truck driver. He offered to buy the palm tree in our front yard.

There was an eerie silence as I stood there in the orange smoky haze, ashes falling like snow on Mercury, and blinked two or maybe three times.

By motivation, this had absolutely nothing to do with the fire — it just seemed like something that would happen in Southern California.

As I quietly closed the door, I thought about Joan Didion; she would understand this.

Tom Impelluso
San Diego, Oct. 24, 2007

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Beneath the Surface

There's a secret menu at the In-N-Out Burger, the ubiquitous California fast-food chain. Andrew and I have been there a couple of times; and last time we noticed people eating things that we certainly hadn't seen on the very short menu board. I remembered reading somewhere about a secret menu--perhaps it was in a Calvin Trillin book, perhaps not--and a Google searched proved this to be true. There's a whole list of things you can order--provided you know enough to ask for them.

Obviously, we must now visit In-N-Out and use our new knowledge. But for me, there's more to it than this; my intrigue extends past the idea that I can have an interesting meal. Andrew and I have been to In-N-Out--yet we've been missing out on the "real" experience. A whole world of In-N-Out was there, right in front of us, yet we couldn't see it; we were outsiders, not privy to the larger joys, the greater satisfactions. As I read through the secret menu that Andrew had printed out, I thought--Could it be possible that California itself is like this? Are there hidden layers here that we just aren't seeing, hidden things to truly love? For the first time I thought--maybe. Maybe there are. Maybe we just haven't been looking in the right places.

To be certain, Citrus Heights is not the right place to look. Yesterday, at around 4:00pm, I found myself leaving the Sunrise Mall and walking across an empty parking lot in unnaturally bright sunlight. The noise from the traffic on Sunrise Avenue seemed dull and distant as I made my way across the wide expanse of concrete; no one else was in sight. I'd finished my work for the day and had walked to the mall to run some wedding errands, a legitimate excuse for the trip; yet I felt unmoored. Where am I? I thought suddenly. What is this place? Though there were plenty of cars on the busy road, I felt like I'd dropped off the face of the earth. The feeling of unreality was so strong, and the disjunct from the much richer, deeper worlds I know are out there--I've lived in them!--so intense, that I almost lost my footing.

This is technically our last week in suburbia--when we return from the honeymoon, we'll be moving to our lovely new apartment in Sacramento. I am genuinely looking forward to moving into our new home; even our brief visit was enough to make me certain that it holds the potential for just the kind of depth and reality that suburbia is lacking. The neighborhood is charming; there's an organic food co-op nearby; and there's not a mall in sight.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fuss and Flurry

Immersed as we are in the final two weeks of wedding preparations, I’d like to take this time to remind everyone involved—parents, groom, bridesmaids, groomsmen, and myself, the Bride—of their roles and responsibilities. To guide us is one of my favorite and most indispensable resources, which I found years ago at a thrift store: The Bride’s Book of Etiquette, published in 1948.

First, I need to remember that since I will be 31 by the time we get married, I must not get carried away: “A Bride who is not quite the young girl she once was would do well to temper her wedding with an informal spirit. You may wear white and even a piece of old lace on your head, but you won't go in for a voluminous veil and a bevy of bridesmaids….As your Groom-to-be is probably marrying you, in part, for the grace and charm your added maturity has given you, it is never wise to let him down by girlish and kittenish display. You are not a middle-aged woman by any means, but you are not quite the jeune fille.” I think I have an old dishtowel that just may work for my “veil.”

It bears reminding that Andrew is actually a very relevant part of my, the Bride’s, day. He must focus on his own tasks at hand, which, fortunately, basically involve simply doing whatever I want: “The Groom is the other half of the raison d’etre for all this fuss and flurry. He may feel completely out of things and very confused with all of the feminine running around that goes on. However, he is a most important personage…No matter how hectic things may seem to him, he will try to observe every little tradition and courtesy dear to the hearts of women.”

My bridesmaids apparently shouldered an unnecessary burden last weekend, when they planned a fabulous shower for me—travel-themed, complete with small suitcases for favors, postcard-printed wrapping paper, travel-focused games—since “Your bridesmaids are purely decorative. Unlike the ushers and the Best Man, they have no real duties other than adding to the beauty of your wedding picture.” Perhaps Molly would not have hand-made the shower invitations had she known.

On the big day, the bridesmaids come into their own: “They are privileged to be as pretty as pictures. They are privileged to dance their shoes thin at the reception.”

Mom would do well to keep in mind that “She is the hub around which all wedding festivities revolve” and that “Her poise and her grace set the mood for the whole wedding.” Because Dad is, as the Father of the Bride, completely uninvolved, “She will keep her husband well posted on all the wedding plans.” She should also remember, no matter how many errands she must run or how many cookies she must bake, that “She is privileged to have a daughter.”

And Dad? Dad must wear appropriate attire, “no matter how much he may balk.” He, too, is “privileged to have a daughter…a daughter he gives in marriage to the man of her choice.” He has no other duties other than a long list of things he must pay for. Tasks like designing invitations and favors and creating endless calligraphed items are nowhere to be found in The Bride’s Book of Etiquette.

As for me, Bride’s tells me that I have a few privileges of my own: “It is your privilege to look as lovely as you know how. You are privileged to have all eyes center on you.” My obligations include throwing copious luncheons, visiting my clergyman, and giving gifts like gold cigarette lighters to my bridesmaids.

With two weeks to go, there are still many things to do. For instance, I must figure out how to arrange my gifts if I am not “having a professional service from a jewelry store arrange my presents for display.” I must think carefully about this arrangement because “Everyone enjoys looking at the Bride’s presents. Most usually, the presents are shown off in some special room in the house or even in two or three rooms.” I must also consider hiring “a detective to guard them.”

A Bride is almost overwhelmed with so many details. For example, my monogram: “A monogram should be worked with care. It is your personal cipher and it should be so used. Occasionally, a Bride will not realize until it’s too late that a combination of initials spells a word, which can be pretty ludicrous. For example, consider the conjunction of ARM on a bath towel.” Should Andrew and I do as Bride’s suggests and monogram our possessions with my initial, Andrew’s initial, and our shared last initial, I now see that our monogram will be MAL—bad in Spanish. These are just the kinds of things that can sneak up on a Bride.

Eleven days to go.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Home on P Street

We found a new home this week--in downtown ("downtown") Sacramento, on a lovely street in a popular neighborhood called Midtown. There are non-chain restaurants and shops nearby, an organic food co-op, and--best of all--lots of beautiful old Victorian homes, each one unique. Being in a city, even a small one, will be a relief after these months in bland, cookie-cutter suburbia. We love the apartment: huge, with wood floors throughout, lots of windows, and amazing leaded-glass cabinets along facing walls in the dining room. We have a private laundry room, a garage, and a little balcony/roof area. It has charm and character to spare--it will really be a home, especially when we have our things moved over!

The landlords, an older couple from Brooklyn did a sneaky thing: someone else had been scheduled to see the apartment a day ahead of us; but after talking to Andrew, the wife called back and asked if we could come a half hour BEFORE the other appointment. I think she wanted to be very fair about letting the first viewer have priority, yet Andrew had made a good impression on her (of course!) she slipped us in. They clearly had "ideal tenants" in mind: the husband told us we'll find it to be the only four-plex in Sacramento with 2 Ph.D.s as tenants.

We feel very lucky and can't wait to move in--which we'll do after the wedding and honeymoon. Only three weeks to go!!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Biggest Little City in the World

This weekend, we headed north to Reno and a little dose of history. Our destination: the Cal-Neva Resort in Lake Tahoe, a casino/hotel that was built in the 1920s and was owned by Frank Sinatra from 1960 to 1963. The Cal-Neva straddles the border between Nevada and California: in the ballroom, a painted line down the middle of the floor marks the state boundary; in the swimming pool, you can swim from Nevada to California.

We’d come to the Cal-Neva to cross Reno off of our weekend trips list; and though we love, love, love Lake Tahoe, we need not return to Reno. Reno is a strange city. It’s nestled in the mountains with little around it, and the city’s sudden explosion of huge casinos, all-you-can-eat buffets, neon signs, and trashy entertainment is jarring and unsettling. Renoians, whether they’re wandering through the annual Italian festival (surprisingly large, we discovered) or dealing cards in a casino, have a distinctive look about them: weathered, jaded, cynical, eyes that have “seen too much.” Some cities have their seedy areas. Reno’s distinction is that it’s all seed.

We were content to leave after a quick lunch at the Italian festival and head to quieter, more beautiful quarters at the Cal-Neva and our room’s spectacular view of Lake Tahoe—and a good helping of ghost stories. When Sinatra owned the Cal-Neva, he was in the habit of shuttling in members of the Mafia, and we took a tour of the Cal-Neva’s secret tunnel system, which the gangsters used to make quick escapes when the police showed up. The tunnels, however, were not used only for swift exits. Outside the main Cal-Neva complex are cabins—lovely cabins with porches looking out over the lake—where celebrities including JFK and Marilyn Monroe regularly stayed. In Marilyn’s cabin—number 3—our guide pointed out her extra-large closet: it once held a trap door, leading to a tunnel, leading to JFK’s favorite cabin. Scandalous—and spooky, as Marilyn’s ghost, along with others, has been known to skulk the tunnels and cabins of the Cal-Neva to this day.

Andrew and I both tend to appreciate these sorts of ghost stories, and if we don’t exactly believe them per se, it’s difficult to discount them entirely. We both had a very palpable sense of history and creepiness at the Cal-Neva that persisted even as Andrew won a few hands of Texas Hold ‘Em at the poker table, even as we had drinks at the Circle Bar. Some places really do seem haunted. And the Cal-Neva, despite its copious slot machines, despite the white-dress-adorned brides standing with their families at the Blackjack tables, despite the end-of-the-road Renoians boredly dealing cards and serving drinks, is one of them.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Weekend in L.A.

Andrew and I spent this weekend in L.A., and, contrary to my expectations, I really liked it. It’s a giant—in our few short days there, we didn’t even begin to crack the surface—but the little we did see showed that my preconceptions about L.A. were wrong. Far from being filled with would-be celebrities, cookie-cutter model-types, and intimidation, the city seemed fun and eclectic, full of all the usual urban suspects—tourists, hipsters, families, creative types. I’m not sold on the idea of living in L.A.—the driving, clearly, is a deterrent. But from the passenger seat, there was very little not to like.

Andrew had a business meeting Friday morning in Beverly Hills, so I set out to do a little window-shopping and people-watching on and around Rodeo Drive. It was a good introduction, made pleasant by a stop in a cafĂ© for coffee and a croissant, a soccer match on the TV above the counter. (The stop was made even more pleasant when I was able to nip into the restroom to remove, and then reinsert, my contact lens, which had been bothering me all morning because, I finally realized, I’d put it in inside-out—oh, the joys of being a contact lens novice. Needless to say, I was not, blinking and grimacing as I was, ready for my close-up.)

In the afternoon, Andrew and I had lunch at Kate Mantalini, where we sat in a high-backed window booth and ate sandwiches. I felt like we should be discussing a movie deal; instead, we continued hashing out our Wyndham timeshare-sales-pitch nightmare.

Later that night, we had dinner at El Coyote, a fun Mexican restaurant Andrew had been to before with some friends from L.A. As we ate, drank some very strong margaritas, and ranted a bit more about Wyndham, the restaurant erupted in cheers and applause—we looked over and saw a man down on one knee, proposing to his very surprised girlfriend amidst some very surprised friends.

Saturday—culture. Culture! We spent the afternoon at the Getty, taking in the beautiful complex, the gardens, and the wonderful collection. Then it was off to the Walk of Fame and Hollywood Boulevard for some lower-brow culture. We saw the Hollywood letters in the distance, had a hot dog, browsed in a couple of vintage stores. We found Frank Sinatra’s handprints in front of Mann’s Chinese Theatre and dodged a large number of people in elaborate costumes.

We headed to Little Ethiopia for a dinner of vegetarian and meat stews, reveling in our delicious meal and wondering whether we’ll find anything at all like this when we move into Sacramento. Somehow, as we ate, I felt more comfortable in L.A. than I have in Citrus Heights all these months—something about being back in a big city, I suppose, that feels like home.

Sunday, we explored the Farmers’ Market, where we had bagel sandwiches at a little deli counter, then went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for yet more soul-nourishing art-browsing. A stroll down Melrose Boulevard finished off our L.A. weekend.

I was surprised to like L.A. as much as I did—and since it’s only an hour-long flight to get there, we’ll definitely go back. Little excursions like these help make living here more than just tolerable; these are truly fun and interesting places that are, for now, within easy reach.

The Sales Pitch

Maybe it was because my mind was fried after an intense few days of discussions about staying in California. Maybe it was because I’d been at home all day by myself and was just happy to hear a human voice. Whatever the case, when my cell phone rang and a man said, “Congratulations—you’ve won a trip for two to Las Vegas! All you have to do is come and pick it up, and you’ll just have to listen to a short presentation about vacation condos,” I said, “Great!” (Good thing I didn’t receive an email on this particular day from Nigerian royalty promising a million dollars if I’d only just send my bank account information. What kind of mood was I in??)

“Are you serious?” Andrew said when I called to tell him we’d be heading to a presentation after work.

Overcome by greed and, for some reason, missing my usual critical faculties and skepticism (maybe I’ve already been in California too long), I said, “But it’s a free vacation!” Andrew, because he is loving and forgiving, agreed reluctantly to go.

This is how we found ourselves sitting in a small, crowded room last Thursday evening, with tropical music playing at an unnecessarily loud volume, responding to a saleswoman—our “host”—who asked questions about our vacation habits. It took approximately three seconds to realize we were in for a long, horrible evening. We answered her questions reluctantly, inwardly sighing at the shock that crossed her face as we explained that we’d lived in Spain, had traveled widely, and would love to visit Thailand as a honeymoon. “No one’s ever said Thailand before,” she said. We were, to put it mildly, not the company’s target audience, and this was not the passive hour of watching a promotional video that I’d naively thought it would be. No, we were for much, much more.

“Well, we have a lot of properties in the West,” she said, pointing at a map of the U.S. “There’s a great area in Arizona called the Four Corners—” she studied the map, her finger drifting over the area. “I’m not sure where it would be,” she said.

“I think it’s here,” I said, indicating the four corners.

“No,” she said. “That’s not it.” She indicated the confluence of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, clearly three corners. “It’s here.”

“Ah,” Andrew and I said. We said nothing more, awkwardly avoiding each other’s eye, as she was obviously struggling with her job and was clearly a very nice lady who was simply not the sharpest knife in the drawer. My heart sank. Guilt washed over me. We were her hope for a commission that evening, and she didn’t have a chance in hell of selling us a thing.

We were ushered into another room, where a frighteningly Botoxed, tanned, and peroxided woman delivered a pitch meant to disarm us—“Now who came tonight to get the free gift?”—try to win us over—“All we ask is that you keep an open mind”—and convince us that this was the deal of a lifetime by making some clearly inaccurate vacation-cost calculations that had my newly minted MBA fiancĂ© writhing in his seat. “Now how many of you have stayed at the—the—what is it—Seven Seasons?” she asked. Seven seasons. Winter, spring, summer, fall, and three dismal and endless seasons of sitting in sales presentations because of a very stupid lapse in judgment. The evening yawned ahead of us, dark and foreboding.

After the presentation, we were seated down once again with our “host,” who began a very confusing, very involved sell for the timeshare-type properties, the actual concept of which neither Andrew and I could fully understand. “Now how much do you think an investment like this would cost?” she asked. Andrew and I exchanged glances. We had no idea what we were looking at. “Three hundred thousand dollars,” I said. Her eyes grew wide. “That’s the highest number anyone has ever guessed,” she said in awe. Dramatically, she wrote down the figure: twenty thousand. Of course, today was a deal: eleven thousand, never ever to be offered again.

“That’s crazy!” Andrew said appreciatively. “That’s so low! Can you believe that?” He turned to me, his face open and enthusiastic.

“Um, it’s great,” I said.

“And another great thing is that the company is debt-free,” she said, writing “debt free” on the brochure.

Andrew primped his MBA feathers. “Well, I’m sure that’s not true,” he said. “I’m sure the company has debt. All companies do.”

She looked at him blankly. “We’re debt free.”

“It’s not—” he stopped. “Okay,” he said. Like the four corners, we let it go.

It was time for the hard sell. Our host’s manager came over to explain financing options, offering us a free week of “time” for our honeymoon. “Our interest rate is 17.5%,” he said. “Isn’t that great?”

“Not really,” Andrew said. “That’s really high. I’d like to call my bank and explore some other options.” He looked at me, nodding, assuming my approval.

The pitch droned on. There were options for lower interest, options for lower down payments. “This all sounds really great,” Andrew kept saying, nodding and asking questions. “We could do that. This sounds like something that will really work for us. We love vacations. This is a really great deal.”

“Well,” I said again and again in various forms, “I actually really don’t think we’re interested at this time even though you’ve made us EXTREMELY interested in timeshares. They sound FANTASTIC. Vacationing in condos sounds exactly like what we want. In six months we might really want to go forward with this.” It was becoming very clear that we were never going to get out alive, that we were going to have to buy the timeshare to escape the building. There was no way out—and Andrew seemed more than happy to be swept along.

“I think the whole thing sounds great,” Andrew said, leaning back in his chair, pleased. “This is a really amazing deal. What do you think?”

I looked back at him in horror and confusion, my eyes silently screaming What is wrong with you?? “Shall we start the paperwork?” the man asked. “Or do you two want some time to discuss this privately?”

“Yes,” I said.

The salespeople walked away, and I turned to Andrew. “Are you crazy?” I hissed. “Are you seriously interested in this?? For eleven thousand dollars??”

Andrew smiled, squinting thoughtfully into the distance, then turned to me, quickly dropping his act. “Of course I’m not interested!” he said. “But you got us into this. And I’m going to let you get us out of it.” He patted my hand. “Good luck.”

“I can’t do this alone,” I begged. “I’m trying my hardest. I need help.”

The salespeople returned. “I couldn’t convince her,” Andrew said sadly. “We’ll have to say no for today.”

“Timeshares sound FANTASTIC,” I said. “Really. I really really want one. This sounds so great. Just not tonight.” Please please please let us go, I silently begged.

A tray of champagne flutes adorned with small umbrellas went past our table. “When you buy something tonight, you get champagne,” the man cajoled. Andrew and I looked over to the couple who had agreed—on this random Thursday night, at this nondescript building in suburbia—to fork over eleven thousand dollars with a 17.5% interest rate for a product whose actual description was so vague that it should have been setting off the alarm bells of everyone in the room. The sad truth is that there was simply no possible way this couple could afford this, and I began feeling really, really full of self-loathing for having anything to do with this dark little world at all. “Smile,” someone called, and snapped the couple’s picture.

We didn’t buy a timeshare, obviously. We refused and refused and refused and when finally—finally, and not without a struggle—we were released, with our hateful and dirty Las Vegas trip certificate that I now feel too implicated to even use, I looked at Andrew and whispered, Run.

“Allow me this,” Andrew said when we were in the car, breathing in our freedom with the doors locked. “I get to make fun of you for this until we go on that vacation. And since I don’t think we’ll ever actually see that trip, I can make fun of you for this for the rest of our lives.”

“Agreed,” I said contritely.

It’s been a few days since our brutal sales experience, and it hasn’t yet released its grip. “That’s another reason why we’d hate a timeshare,” we remarked now and then this weekend as we explored L.A., seeing an article about an out-of-the-way place or shuddering at the thought of the vacation-condo lifestyle. Our protests, made only to each other, are more aggressive now than we’d been able to muster for our “hosts”: “We’d have to go only where they have properties! They don’t even have properties in Spain!! Eleven thousand dollars and we haven’t even seen a property—who would do that?” The whole concept seems utterly absurd. And even more clearly so the longer we have to think about it.

We went there (I brought us there) of our own (my) free will, but we feel defensive—and corrupted somehow, man-handled, and a little uneasy about all the hapless souls who can’t see through the “deal of a lifetime” pitch to the high interest, limiting exclusions, and overall ick factor of the whole thing. Eleven thousand dollars—gone in an instant, a looming specter of sure financial difficulty or ruin, because of a sales pitch that wasn’t even any good. I know sales is a job, but it just seems—awful. Strong-arming people into something clearly inappropriate to make a commission.

I know Andrew and I are lucky people. And I have a lingering sadness and unease from seeing so many less lucky people tricked—yes, that’s the right word—into buying something that seems to promise endless perfect vacations, an instant pathway to a better life. All at the low, low interest rate of 17.5%. Just sign here, and hand over your credit card. Your champagne will arrive shortly.