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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Asset Safari: After the Meltdown, Part III

It is now 107 days since we’ve had a home we can call a home.

Leaving NYC in a taxi on a gray day, we flew West and showed up in Palo Alto, hoping for a fellowship–no dice. Paused in SoCal to see me aging Mum and scope out the job market–no job market. After a week we hauled anchor for Hawaii, where a house awaited, collecting dust kitties and still stuffed with M’s late mother’s personal effects (including a fourth husband).

Now we are back in L.A.

In our last weeks in NYC, back when all this began, I had a flash about how to wrest control of this shapeless life of ours. My head was in an unusual place–having finished my novel Feb. 25, I’d gone straight that evening, without even a tot of celebratory whisky, into a frenzy of boxing and storing and throwing. For the next 45 days I had no time to read or write. Meanwhile, M was finishing her book, on double-drop-dead-line, since we had to vacate March 31 whether or not the mss. was finished on its April 1 due date.

All this left me plenty of time for one thing: thinking. And my thinking couldn’t be wool-gathering, either, or story-plotting. No, I had to assume the role of Captain Trips, master-planning our future moves even as our life morphed toward nebulosity, if not disaster.

The problem: How to turn a rout into victory? Since I’ve been reading a lot of military history for my novel, Dunkirk sprang to mind, but the analogy seemed risible; and as a rule one must be cautious about inviting comparison to Winston Churchill. Still, I conducted a staged withdrawal, trying to sublet the apartment, to sell our first editions of Eliot and Stevens and Cather and Bukowski, to find amid our possessions a liability to turn into an asset. And failed on each count.

To get myself through this initial period I decided to approach this entire episode–our "reset," as Obama might call it–as a four-star life detour, if the Guide Michelin reviewed lives like restaurants. I would drape it in flash econo-political symbolism, lard it with literary analogy, disguise the off bits with aggressive spices, like a cheap curry. Then call it an adventure. Turn suffering into material, the way a bistro chef takes offal and serves it up as tripes de Caen.

It wasn’t such a stretch. This is partly how it felt to be a magazine writer and editor, in the Latter Days of Journalism. Magazine people make sausage, almost without exception. I was good at it.

But I also was a fiction writer–which, in these times, is like saying "I whittle garden gnomes out of scrap lumber." Still, the fiction-writing habit seemed the only one still functioning after the meltdown. Freelancing a nonfiction story when staffers are being laid off by the hundreds is like a cow boarding a cattle car to the stockyards in expectation of reaching the next pasture.

Writing fiction, for me, for years, has been all about finding form in content, patiently sifting material and memories and associations until a constellation of truths emerge that one can shape into a whole. This was what I must do with my life, and our lives. Find the truth, and let that truth dictate the shape.

Or so I thought. For our content we had our life, which was about to become defined by movement and search and return, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath or the knight and squire in Don Quixote or Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s On the Road–excepting iPods and laptops, of course. Having been away from our West Coast hometowns for over 20 years except for holidays and M’s odd magazine assignment and my football book, there was also a feeling of coming home from the wars. We were both like Odysseus, fumbling our way toward the past that was to be our future. (From the above it can be seen how quickly literary analogies lose their potency; in real life, as inspiration and motivation their return on investment is about the same, if not less.)

The magazine cliche came easily to hand: Road Trip! The skeletal excuse for filling any hole in the fashion/gear/travel section in any magazine is to scrounge up some skinny callow kids and take their pictures driving down Route 66 in a vintage convertible. (Hey, if it worked for Huck Finn, Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, Lewis & Clark, Hunter Thompson, David Lynch and so on unto "Thelma and Louise," don’t knock it.)

Besides, in addition to the Road Trip format we’d have the overlay of nostalgia that would come from retracing our footsteps. Indeed: twenty-six years ago, the voyage out ended up taking us from Palo Alto to New York City via a sojourn at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. That had been Captain Trips’ greatest achievement as a strategic planner to date. Now that I was being called upon to unravel the Penelopean tapestry of that move, to pull on a thread or two and see if it led us back to our origins, it was hard not to question the point of it all. Even if those 26 years amounted to the heart of our life.

Anyway, go we must. And as the clock ticked down, it became increasingly important, for me, to define the deal going down before it defined us. Crisis control for the middle class meltdown.

Speaking practically, calling ourselves homeless in a fabulous-ironic sense would certainly have gotten attention and, who knows, perhaps even an article assignment. But it seemed overwrought, as well as likely to provoke retaliation, given the plight of the "real" homeless–even though we really were homeless. Anyway, my second thought was to (figuratively) put on an old Hermes scarf and call it vagabondage. In Greenwich Village of old this would be an acceptable pose; but weren’t we headed out into the badlands where the wrong scarf can get you strung up? Also, vagabondage by definition lacks a strategy, especially in a society that doesn’t tolerate 50-something workers, let alone unemployed gypsies. No, we needed something to tell people who asked who we were, who asked where and how we lived. Anything but the truth, which is that we were jobless and homeless, dragging our possessions in a laundry cart across the Great American Consumer Desert.

That’s when my flash hit, an echo of a Depression-era snatch of dialog between Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, who, as is well known, when faced with the insurmountable cried out: "Hey, let’s put on a show!"

In our case, coming from California, and being surfers at heart, the phrase I heard sprang not from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley traditions but from our own teenage years on the sand: Cue the Beach Boys! Check out Jan & Dean and those girls in clam-diggers leaning against a cherry ‘57 Chevy–throw the boards into the back of the station wagon, along with some blankets and extra wax. And by the way? Tell our teachers we’re going on a surfing safari...

What a difference a name makes. Among those who surf, and we do, "going on safari" is still as cool and popular as ever, and doing so at poverty level is still considered a badge of retro distinction. I began mentally toting up where we could rest, for days, weeks and even months, all within decent distance from a beach- or reef-break: Huntington, Laguna, South Shore Oahu, Bay of Biscay...

It’s all in your mindset. All in a name. Tell the teachers we’re surfing. Asset-surfing, U.S.A.

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