Thursday, January 29, 2009

Keep Tahoe BLUE

Last night at the Laundromat, Andrew went out to get something from our car and had an encounter with a combative Sacramentan. “Nice bumper sticker,” the guy said, climbing out of a car whose backseat was stuffed with piles of newspapers. He was referring to our “Keep Tahoe Blue” sticker and not, as you might think, our “The Christian Right Is Neither” sticker that graced our bumper when we bought the car.

“Thanks,” Andrew said. “It’s for a good cause.”

“Yeah,” the combatant said. “But I wish they’d’a done the sticker right. The lake isn’t blue, it’s clear. It should say ‘Keep Tahoe Clear.’”

“Actually, the lake is blue,” Andrew said.

“No, it’s not. If the water was blue, there’d be a problem. Do you drink blue water? Do you? What color's the water you drink--blue?” He got up close to Andrew's face, then turned and touched the sticker as though he was considering pulling it off.

I must point out here that Andrew and I have never been under the impression that the water is blue, that if we scooped water into a cup it would resemble a cup of Gatorade Ice. The water's clarity allows it to reflect the sky and environment dramatically. “But it looks blue,” Andrew said, rolling up his sleeves, preparing to Mix In.

“But the water isn’t actually blue,” the man insisted. "It should be 'Keep Tahoe Clear.'"

Having reached this impasse, Andrew rolled down his sleeves and instead reached for his MBA and his patented Littell Shrug-and-Smile. “It’s marketing,” he explained. “It just works this way. If it said ‘Keep Tahoe Clear’ I wouldn’t have donated to the cause and gotten the sticker. You see? Keep Tahoe Blue. It’s good. It’s good marketing.”

The Sacramentan bowed his head with a frown and continued on his way to—oh, who knows, a strip mall, or a recycling plant for his newspapers, looking out for his next worthy battle. Andrew rejoined me in the Laundromat, searching desperately for five—five!—missing socks, and announced he’d just gotten into a fight in the parking lot. We finished our laundry. The socks weren’t actually missing, just inadvertently folded in with other things. Just another night in Sacramento.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Healthy Habits

I’ve married a masochist. This has become all too clear to me in the past few months, when any sane person would simply bear down, head lowered against a strong wind, and weather his time on the West Coast with as much humor and bravery and patience as humanly possible. One would not, one would imagine, spend much time looking at real estate listings on the New York Times website, since such listings would serve not only to remind one of being far away from home but also to rub one’s face in the very life that one is not presently leading.

But Andrew apparently likes inflicting this sort of pain upon himself. Every now and then during the week, I’ll hear his grim voice call out feebly from my office area, beckoning me with a somber “Come and look at this.” It’s always a fabulous brownstone in Park Slope or a stunning five-bedroom home in Connecticut or a bookshelf-lined co-op on the Upper West Side or an eighteenth-century farmhouse in a town within spitting distance of the Hudson. Grimly he clicks on every one of the pictures, forcing us, faces blank and steady, to admire moldings and stained glass and porches and alcoves.

Because I am his wife, I go along with the viewings, but not without my usual, horrified versions of Why are you doing this?

There are lots of nice homes in Sacramento, too, particularly in Midtown and in the “Fabulous Forties” neighborhood, where I would, in theory, be happy to buy any one of the large, character-ful houses on the wide, tree-lined streets. But we are not going to buy a house here, so what’s the point of thinking about it? Our dining room table is always littered with sales fliers from for-sale houses Andrew passes on his runs, and he’s managed to strike up relentless email solicitations from more than one real estate broker. For a while I was devouring articles about what a great time it is for first-time buyers; now I focus instead on the articles that say the best time for buying is yet to come--in, oh, eighteen months or so.

Yes, I prefer to live in ignorance of the many lovely homes that will not be ours, and of the life that is, right now, operating at its usual, pleasant urban pitch very far away. For a long time after leaving Spain and moving here, I couldn’t even read the Travel section of the Times; it hurt too much to remember Barcelona, and any pictures of European cities were simply unpleasant triggers. As I said, this is the time to just bear down, recognize the means-to-an-end aspect of it all, and live in the here and now. (The Travel thing has passed, thankfully. There are even fun articles about California once in a while.)

And Andrew…Andrew will continue to grit his teeth and search New York real estate listings and summon me to share in his hideous ritual. And then we will step away from the computer and rub some rock salt in our gaping wounds by watching a few rousing episodes of House Hunters International, then finally collapse with copies of the New Yorker and New York. Healthy habits indeed.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Sacramento Weekend

I’ve been fighting off a cold for the past few days, so Friday night we went out for some restorative frozen yogurt. Then we faced off over Scrabble, and, though I lost, it was not without trying my hardest to incorporate my two new favorite words: bunya and hod. Incidentally, those seem promising choices for the names of any future children we may have.

Saturday I went to yoga, and then we spent the day simply relaxing at home. I read more of M.F.K. Fisher’s Among Friends while Andrew worked on his website. We had dinner at Café Marika, a tiny, five-table Hungarian restaurant in our neighborhood, run by a husband and wife team. Our meals were delicious—pork schnitzel and goulash, served with a potato and mushroom soup, spetzel in a tasty paprika sauce, and an apple pastry for dessert. (Total bill: $30. A small city has its charms.) Later, we watched Man on Wire, a documentary about Philippe Petit’s amazing tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

On Sunday, we went to the farmer’s market, then it was off to another yoga class for me while Andrew stayed home and read the Times. Then Andrew went for a run while I read the paper. Later we went grocery shopping; for dinner we made meatloaf, roasted potatoes, and sautéed Swiss chard.

Sometimes, after a perfectly nice weekend like this, we wonder if we’d dislike Sacramento so much if it were on the East Coast—if, instead of a West Coast city among parched fields, with a 108-degree summer looming, it was a small city in New York or Pennsylvania or Connecticut. The answer, I’m afraid, is that we wouldn’t. Dislike it, I mean. In fact, were Sacramento to suddenly become snowy and find itself on EST (with far, far fewer strip malls and new housing developments), we might just be content. Too bad we can’t hitch it up to the Volvo like a mobile home and pull it along to greener pastures. Just as a lovely house is damned by its proximity to a sewage treatment plant, so too may our adopted home be tainted by its distance from the East.

Friday, January 23, 2009

ICCA #10: Strange Coastal Flora

I can’t complain about strange coastal flora, and one of the best things about exploring California’s coastline is spotting the weird wildflowers and plants growing among the sea scrub and rocks. For Christmas Andrew got me a field guide to California, so perhaps I’ll be able to do some identification next time we go.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

ICCA #9: Steinbeck Country

I can’t complain about being in Steinbeck country. There’s always something fun about wandering around in a dead writer’s footsteps, and California is firmly Steinbeck territory. In August 2007 Andrew and I went to Monterey for a weekend to see Cannery Row, and I read East of Eden and Tortilla Flat—and remembered Grapes of Wrath—with a new understanding of the landscape he describes.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

ICCA #8: Redwoods

I can’t complain about the redwoods. Wandering through a redwood forest is one of my favorite things to do here in California, and the two areas we’ve explored so far—the Hendy Woods and Muir Woods—have been amazing. There’s something particularly relaxing and peaceful about wandering through trees that have been around for centuries, their stick-straight trunks careening skyward, shading the paths with the needles that splay from their very tops.

Houseboats, Redwoods, and a View of the Bay

On Saturday, Andrew and I took advantage of the strangely spring-like temperatures and embarked on a day trip to Sausalito, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Instantly charming, Sausalito’s main drag looks out over the sailboat-dotted water, and you can see the San Francisco skyline from a distance—as well as the Golden Gate Bridge, though for us it was a bit too hazy to see. Above the main street of shops, cafes, and restaurants are steep streets and beautiful houses set among the hills, looking out at the spectacular view.

We had lunch at the Bridgeway Café, sitting—in January!—at an outdoor table in the sun so we could people-watch and enjoy our proximity to the water. The streets were full of cyclists, many of whom we suspect had ridden over the Golden Gate Bridge for lunch in Sausalito—something we could easily imagine ourselves doing, were we to become San Franciscans. Surprisingly, Sausalito felt very European—were it not for the English being spoken around us, and if we’d squinted our eyes a little, we could have imagined ourselves on the Costa Brava, or in the South of France.

We had a drink at the No Name Bar after lunch, in honor of Andrew’s father, who lived in Sausalito in the sixties. It was easy to imagine Andrew sitting in the very seat his dad once sat in, looking out at the street through the large front window.

Before leaving Sausalito, we strolled around an area of the bay that’s filled with row upon row of houseboats. Far from the modest, floating, trailer-like houseboats we saw floating on the canals of Amsterdam, these houseboats actually looked like houses that just happened to be situated in water, on firm cement bases. On the other side of the houseboat area, however, the homes seemed much seedier, many spray-painted in garish colors or airbrushed with skulls and other evocative imagery. The wrong side of the tracks, clearly.

A winding road took us next to Muir Woods, a park full of old-growth redwoods, some over a thousand years old. There’s nothing quite like strolling through redwoods—it’s incredibly peaceful—and the trails here were nicely laid out. We walked about a mile, then drove on to Muir Beach, a small, cove-like beach surrounded by hills and trails. There were a few surfers paddling out to large breaking waves, and lots of families and groups of friends picnicking and waiting for sunset; there was a distinct hippie vibe. When we left, we could see the sun setting into the Pacific from the car window.

As usual, we discussed the possibility of moving to Sausalito and picked up a few real estate brochures. It’s too far away from where Andrew needs to be; but we can dream…

Thursday, January 15, 2009

ICCA #7: The Tower

I can’t complain about the Tower movie theater and restaurant, located in a landmark building in Sacramento. The theater has soft, comfortable seats that seem—in shabby chic style—just one extra pound away from breaking; and the theater, which opened in 1938, has an air of pleasant decay. The film lineup is always outstanding, and, happily, one thing I simply cannot say is “That film will never come to Sacramento”—in all likelihood, it might. Connected to the theater is the Tower Cafe, where we sometimes have a burger before or after a movie. There are outdoor tables tucked in among palm trees and planters; not a bad place to while away a little time.

A Post About Revolutionary Road, in Blatant Disregard to Andrew's Warning

For anyone who hasn’t read Revolutionary Road, the story goes something like this: two bright young people, Frank and April, meet and fall in love in New York City; an accidental pregnancy sends them to the suburbs and traps Frank in a corporate job he scorns. As the years slip away and their seemingly destined great achievements remain out of reach, they decide to take matters into their own hands and move to Paris, where Frank can “find himself” while April supports him. Their planning rejuvenates them, but it ultimately goes awry because of yet another unplanned pregnancy. Frank is secretly relieved; April is devastated. Her death at the end is a tricky blend of accident and suicide.

This bare-bones summary ignores pretty much everything that makes this book so brutally amazing: The self-consciousness of every word the Wheelers speak. The secret pride Frank feels in his work, which he is forced to continuously deny through bitter irony and distain lest he be just like everyone else. The excruciating earnestness of the Laurel Players and their awful play, and the pathetic, shattered idea that this local theatre group could somehow redeem the Wheelers’ disappointment and unhappiness. The corrosive effect that inertia can have on a marriage; and the rending horror that arises when one person’s dream changes, while the other’s does not.

I spent much of yesterday immersed in Yates’s world, skimming parts of the book in the afternoon and then seeing the movie last night. It was a wrenching film, the Wheelers’ arguments and fragile reconciliations almost unbearable to watch, but we both—predictably—lamented all that the film had left out. It wasn’t a disappointment; it just felt incomplete. Nonetheless, we cast uneasy glances at each other as we drove home, pointing out the Wheelers’ tragic errors and reassuring ourselves that no matter how bad things might get, we would never wind up like that.

Fortunately, we’re not Frank and April; and any dissatisfaction we feel with our current life just brings us closer together in a shared resolve to escape. You won’t see any screaming, brutal fights in our household, nor the needling waltz of blame and accusation that permeates the Wheelers’ conversations like an accent or a lisp. But it’s a little disconcerting to hear echoes of the Wheelers’ desperate Paris plan in our own half-formed plans and possibilities—maybe Andrew’s next job will take us back to Europe; maybe we’ll ditch everything and teach English in Asia for a year—as though simple physical, geographical distance will make some kind of difference, lead to some elusive fulfillment that we can’t quite pin down.

Of course, more likely is that we’ll wind up in a house much like the Wheelers’, with kids and a yard and a book-lined living room and a plan to build a stone path by hand, with jobs not much different from those we have now—and that we’ll feel perfectly content. There’s nothing wrong with such contentment, as long as it takes place in a charming setting and not a cookie-cutter cul-de-sac. But today, with Revolutionary Road fresh in my mind, it’s all too tempting to confuse contentment with complacency and wonder if we shouldn’t be working just a little bit harder to get ourselves where we really want to be.

(Yes, Andrew, I’m taking the movie just a little personally, which you specifically warned me last night—as a condition of your attendance—not to do. I’ll be over it soon, I promise.)

ISCA (BIW) #6: Mild Temperatures

I shouldn’t complain about Northern California’s mild temperatures…but I will, introducing a variation on the ICCA theme. I shouldn’t complain about high-sixties/low-seventies in January, but it’s JANUARY. I listen with envy to those back home, aflutter with snowstorms and record lows. I think with nostalgia of my favorite winter coat, which I didn’t even bother moving out here. And last night—there was a mosquito in our apartment, heralding another season of middle-of-the-night mosquito hunts. It’s enough to make us move. To Nevada City, that is. Or at least to an apartment with brand-new window screens.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

It's Soup

I've written before that one of the elderly ladies who live next door has an extraordinarily loud and high-pitched phone voice. ("DON'T FORGET YOUR NEW YORK CLOTHES!") Today I heard the following, delivered with a particularly intrusive urgency and volume:


Eating the salad as the main course seemed for her to be a novel, slightly suspect activity, something to be accepted reluctantly, with eyebrows raised at these crazy, new-fangled ideas.

ICCA #5: Cost of Living

I can’t complain—certainly can’t complain—about the low cost of living here in Sacramento. From our reasonable rent to our twelve-year-old Volvo to the generally inexpensive restaurants, we’ve kept our expenses low enough here so that we’re able to take frequent weekend trips and nurture our house fund (to be tapped on the East Coast, of course). In a weird way, we even owe our Japan trip to Sacramento. Thanks, Sacto.*

*The nickname “Sacto” will not be receiving its own ICCA entry.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Nevada City, Gold-Rush Town

On Saturday, Andrew and I hopped in the car and headed into the Sierra Nevada foothills to explore a few old Gold Rush towns. First stop: Grass Valley, with a small Main Street and a surprising number of small bookstores. After a quick stroll, we continued on to Nevada City. Here we struck gold, so to speak (what a terrible, terrible, though inevitable pun), with a charming downtown full of shops and restaurants; most of the buildings dated from the 1800s and had been charmingly restored. The town was bustling, the streets and cafes crowded, though we’re not sure if it’s usually like this or if the crowds were there for the Wild & Scenic Environmental Film Festival that was taking place. We had lunch at Lefty’s, a cute gourmet burger place with a pressed-tin ceiling and exposed brick walls; we could have been in Park Slope. After lunch, we explored some of the residential streets, full of cute Victorians and lots of trees.

We made a tentative gesture toward living in Nevada City by inquiring about an apartment for rent on the main street (it sounds wonderful), and chatting briefly with a realtor; but when we got home and assessed our apartment with a cold eye, the idea of packing up and moving again proved to be, as Andrew said, “revolting.” We shall see. It’s on the radar. Once summer once again descends with its oppressive heat, we may feel more enthusiastic about moving on.

ICCA #4: Husch

I can’t complain about Husch Vineyards, a small winery in Philo, California. We discovered this winery on our first wine country expedition shortly after we moved West, and we were instantly smitten, by its small wooden tasting room as much as by the outstanding chardonnay—it made converts of us both. We’re members now, with a shipment coming twice a year and a picnic in the summer, where this picture was taken.

Friday, January 09, 2009

ICCA #3: The CalNeva Resort

I can’t complain about the CalNeva Resort, a hotel/casino situated right on the California/Nevada border. Andrew and I have been there twice in the year we’ve lived here, and on both visits we felt a pleasant sense of having stepped into another time. Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, JFK, the mafia—ghosts and stories litter the dark-beamed rooms and the cabins outside that overlook Lake Tahoe.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

ICCA #2: The California Coast

I can’t complain about the California coast. A drive down Highway 1 was one of the first weekend trips we took after moving West, and though we’ve seen the coastline several times since then, I can still remember my first glimpses of the Pacific—dramatic, churning, with the coastline rock-strewn, windy, and cold. There was an edge-of-the-earth feeling, of hovering someplace unexpected on the globe.

Love Song

Last night, Andrew and I drove to the airport so Andrew could catch a flight to Las Vegas for a business trip. I then drove home alone. It is a simple drive—only about twenty minutes, with just one exit to remember—and I’ve done it many times with no problem. I did not need a GPS. However, I used a GPS—just to try it out for the first time (it was a Christmas gift from Mom and Dad)—and can confidently say that this little device will change my life. Like sight to a blind man, I have been given the gift of a sense of direction; NorCal is no longer a sprawling tangle of highways and exits and shopping centers but a navigable, digital series of puzzles for our GPS to solve. The best part? I can just sit back while she solves those puzzles, then ease my foot onto the gas as she dictates the solutions, road by road, turn by turn.

What if, last night, I had missed my single exit? It would have been no problem. I would not have had to feel my heart rate accelerate as I realized I was fast on my way to San Francisco. I would not have had to pull over at a gas station to call Andrew, praying he hadn’t yet boarded the plane. I could have simply glanced over at the GPS with a shrug and a mildly apologetic smile, and she would have done the work of getting me home—without judgment, without confusion, without a disbelieving tone in her voice if I expressed uncertainty of whether I should be going north or south. Just directions! Clear, simple directions. I feel liberated.

I may have used the GPS only once so far, but I already know my favorite feature: the GO HOME button. After letting Andrew out of the car last night, I simply tapped it, and on we went—homeward-bound. Such security; such safety. It was almost magical. I could have been hopelessly entwined within the most twisting, complex highway system; I could have been shaking as I drove through an eerily desolate town; and all I would have had to do was tap that button. It’s so—graceful. Go home. Yes, that is exactly what I want. Take me there, my GPS. Take me there.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

ICCA: San Francisco

I can’t complain about San Francisco—or, more accurately, being just an hour and a half’s drive from the City on the Bay. I can’t complain about the hilly streets, the nice restaurants and shops, the museums, the countless neighborhoods yet to be explored. And I definitely can’t complain about the vestiges of sixties attitude weaving in and out of daily life, like the naked people strolling casually among the runners in the Bay to Breakers race, and the crowd’s unflappable reaction. “It takes all kinds,” a woman said, “and San Francisco just has a larger variety of kinds.”

A New Year's Challenge

Over the holidays, on the occasion of perhaps the hundred and fiftieth time Andrew or I bemoaned our West Coast residence and expressed a longing to return East, we were told, numerous times, the following:

Stop complaining. You have nothing to complain about. –my mother

I can’t believe you actually live in California. Awful. –Molly, being helpful

Stop complaining. What’s one nice thing about California? Name one. Name one. You should name a different one every day. –Andrew’s sister

It’s an interesting challenge. And so let it begin today: each day I will attempt, along with my usual blog posts, to include a note on something I like about California. The series shall be called “I Can’t Complain About…” (ICCA), and while I won’t guarantee a daily entry, I will do my best.

Who knows? I might just talk myself into wanting to stay here forever. Let the un-complaining begin.

Monday, January 05, 2009

A Cold Field, a Starry Sky

2009, and another year in Sacramento. We finished off 2008 in a style I could get accustomed to—spending only two of the last six weeks of the year actually in California. Our Christmas travels took us on an East Coast tour, from Pittsburgh to Rochester to Jacksonville. We had six flights in all, one of them through Chicago in the midst of a terrible snowstorm and hundreds of flight cancellations; yet we made it through unscathed. There were some tense moments, but we felt incredibly lucky—we overheard countless people being involuntarily bumped, with the next available flight not hours but days away.

Now here we are, another New Year’s Eve behind us. It was fine as far as New Year’s Eves go, a nice night in New Smyrna Beach, Florida with Andrew’s sister and college friends. My ideal New Year’s Eve, however, remains elusive. Over my desk hangs a Verlyn Klinkenborg column in which he talks about spending the Eve with his horses on his farm; this is as close as it gets to my perfect NYE:

“I always wonder what it would be like to belong to a species—just for a while—that isn’t so busy indexing its life, that lives wholly within the single long strand of its being. I will never have even an idea of what that’s like.
“I know because when I stand among the horses tonight, I will feel a change once midnight has come. Some need will have vanished, and I will walk back to the house—lights burning, smoke coming from the wood stove—as if something had been accomplished, some episode closed.”

That is the NYE I yearn for. No frippery, no flare, barely a registering of the clock ticking from one year to the next; just a cold snowy field, a starry sky, the crisp crack of footsteps as I walk to a warmly lit house for some hot chocolate, full of relief that those last drawn-out seconds of the year have passed, that the needling anticipation of a new year has finally given way to its beginning.