Cali Vacation: Same As It Ever Was


I have never understood people who, upon approaching the end of vacation, say things like, I’m looking forward to getting back to work.

Once again I have had my annual trip to Mary’s in DSC_0007San Pedro, and once again we had a wonderful time. Who wants to walk away from that and go back to work? It looks as if the best I can do now is to avoid the tasks I have piled up all around me and just reminisce.

There isn’t going to be much originality here. As I’ve told you before, Mary and I are creatures of habit when it comes to our days together: we eat the same things, go to the same places, participate in the same activities, and watch the same movies. We like it that way. I’ve known her home as my own for thirty years; there’s no need for variety.

For me, the relief of summer school being over and escaping the relentless Texas heat are so great I kind of don’t care what else happens. For two weeks we went back and forth: What do you want to eat?

I don’t care. 

Where should we bike to?

It doesn’t matter.

Do you want to watch Emma or Pride and Prejudice?

Either is fine.

This could be a level of monotony and anhedonia associated with serious clinical depression, but in our case it stems from a sense of blissful contentment and the knowledge that whatever we do really will be just fine. We have no intense need to “make the most of it;” we don’t have to hurry, we don’t have to be anywhere.

One place we didn’t have to be was the TorranceDSC_0019 Farmers’ Market. I’ve written already about the predictable level of excellent produce, fruits, and flowers; this year there was something extra wonderful: half a dozen beautiful mature ladies performing traditional Hawaiian dance, accompanied by one man on the ukelele. Their faces were radiant, their moves liquid. They were, may I say, magnificently sensuous and sensual.

We stood and watched for an entire set, passing the bag of hot kettle corn back and forth. Toward the end we found ourselves chewing less and less, motionless as we watched them move. The ukelele played, the women kept rhythm with their bodies and with the smooth stones clicking in their hands. Their smiles, their movements held us. They stopped to summon a friend from the audience to join them, and though she was dressed in shorts and a button-down shirt, the lack of traditional dress hardly registered. She had all the moves.

When they finished I was in tears. I tell you, you cannot take me anywhere.

Our Preliminary Activities Roster opened DSC_0066with a walk-about so I might reassure myself that the ‘hood hasn’t changed too much since last year. Some houses have changed color, a few new gardens have been put in, there are places in the sidewalks that this year’s earthquakes have dislodged a little further. There was one a couple of months ago that even Mary felt (unusual for her) – her first thought was that a truck had driven into her kitchen. I just love Mary’s intuitive interpretations of the world.

We had one little shaker while I was out there, the first I’ve experienced in a long time. As we sat one evening watching the day’s Jane Austen, the house went thump for one second. I heard objects on shelves become unsettled and settle themselves back down as quickly as those tricks in which someone pulls a tablecloth out from under a set table. The jarring wasn’t radical by any means, merely a brief surprise.

We  walked for three hours that first DSC_0079excursion, because at 25th and Western I couldn’t resist turning left. Making the commitment to head down to White Point is a little daunting, since you know perfectly well you’re going to have to walk back up somehow. But I can only go just so long without getting close to that water I’ve grieved for for the past 50 weeks. It kind of pulls me.

The area on the left as you look at the above photo has been US Air Force property for a long time. Thirty years ago it was still all old, run-down barracks; now there is new housing and attractive landscaping. At the bottom of the hill I stepped onto the slope to capture a photo of what pretty much all of southern California would look like without massive irrigation. It would look like this:


I was aggrieved to learn that Los Angeles County’s current response to its catastrophic drought (I heard someone on the radio last month saying California had 18 months’ worth of water left) has been to limit yard watering to three times per week. Even writing this, I can’t believe it. It made it very difficult for me to wholeheartedly embrace the all the flowers and greenery everywhere. On the positive side, however, it reinforced my conviction about letting go of everything in my own yard that needs to be watered any more than my rain barrels can handle.

But I digress. What I wanted to talk about was the area down at the bottom of that long slope, where  you encounter cliffs that point straight down to the sea.

I may not be able to write about time inDSC_0090 a way that measures up to Virginia Woolf – nobody has and nobody can, in my opinion – but I want to flash forward a few days to mention a conversation Mary and I had with a very senior San Pedran. He held rolled-up photographic prints of the area at the bottom of those cliffs, taken when the resort still stood there, and told us about a time when he intervened with some teens who were defacing the fountain that has since been relocated to the little park on top. Other than the fountain, all that remains of the resort are giant blocks of concrete that look oddly out of place among the native boulders. The tide pools are famous, and people are always down there exploring.

We didn’t hike all the way to the bottom this visit, but decided to take Paseo del Mar over to one of the side streets that would bring us in a long loop back to the house. Because that big fallen hunk of roadway is still missing, a short but dusty trek through a wildlife preserve is required. Scents of hot dust, wild anise, and salt air. The “sharp stink of fox,” as Ted Hughes wrote as well, or of some other wild animals that populate the scrub. Mary says coyotes have been establishing themselves in the area.

Here and there a reminder on this Air DSC_0097Force land, that wars happen in America too. From these small shacks people kept watch for enemy ships and planes. Imagine.

You never know, in the course of a day, what experience will spark your imagination; I guess it’s as good a reason as any to get out of bed in the morning. It may have been these watch-posts that stirred us first; then a review in The New Yorker of Ben Macintyre’s book A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal sent me straight to the iPad to order not only that one but three of Macintyre’s books. And there we were, just like that, immersed in the world of WWII British spies and counter-spies.

Along with reading about a world completely alien to us, over the next two weeks Mary and I would be doing a great deal of cycling, riding her vintage bikes from the house down to Paseo, over to Cabrillo Beach, through the marina and Ports o’ Call toward the Marine Museum where the USS Iowa is anchored.

Having lived in San Pedro most of her life, DSC_0103Mary knows all the flattest routes. Although she peddled a ginormous old Schwinn up and down the streets as a kid, we aren’t kids any more. You can bet your lunch money we would be avoiding at all cost having to bike (or, more accurately, push bikes up) some of the streets we walked that first evening. You can’t even see how steep this charmer is because the drop is so precipitous. The tilted horizon can be blamed squarely on the photographer’s being severely oxygen-deprived; but as we all know, having to stop and take a photo offers the perfect excuse to take a moment to rediscover lung function in situations like this.

While last summer was one of chilly damp foggy days, this trip was sunshine from morning till night, with only a couple of mornings of marine layer. The nights were still cool enough for the jasmine to be truly outrageous: I have never known its perfume to be so heavy. It seemed less scent than substance. When I’d go to the garage in the morning for cat food, the inside of the garage would be redolent with jasmine.

Another rare treat was a bumper cropDSC_0181 of figs. I usually arrive too early for them and only manage to squeak out three or four ripe ones before I have to go home and leave the harvest to Mary. This year I ate my fill of them, especially the tiny ones that taste – I promise you – like the inside of a Fig Newton only better. There were eight figs on this little dessert plate; I had carried them to the house in one hand.

The great Pacific, night-blooming jasmine, ripe figs, and my best girlfriend. How could anyone want to go back to work after a couple of weeks like that?




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