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Buying a home in Mill Valley seemed, by contrast, to require a letting go of the old concept of ownership. I saw myself as taking on tenancy of a place whose price tag would make my old neighbors gag or faint. The bank lets my children and me sleep here, and for a period of years I will, but the prospect of actually paying off my mortgage seems as remote as the lights on the Richmond Bridge, just barely visible from my back deck.
In New Hampshire, I had savings. In California, my most valuable asset was a tax return from my movie-sale year -- my admission ticket to further indebtedness.
The house I ransomed
my future to buy for my family and myself is a beautiful but much smaller
place than the one we left, with no yard for my children's beloved trampoline,
or a garden for me. In the absence of an office, I work in my living room,
directly above the spot where my son Charlie has set up his drums and
guitar. Audrey, when she's home, sleeps in a walk-in closet we've fixed
up with a futon.
Where I came from, people went to church on Sunday mornings. Here, it seems, they make their pilgrimages to Mount Tam.
I often find myself sitting on my front step with the paper, weekend mornings, catching scraps of conversations of the hikers and bikers who pass by. The recurrent themes are mountain bike suspensions, avoidance of sports injuries. The latest water-resistant fibers in the new Patagonia catalogue. Relationships. And wine.
That's all right with me. I figure a person could suffer from plenty worse vices than obsession with personal growth, health and love of the outdoors. You'll lose a few IQ points living out here, a friend who emigrated here 10 years ago told me. But I have also lost five pounds, tightened my calves, increased my hiking endurance to the point where I have set my sights on scaling Half Dome. Two months after our move, my children pointed out to me that a pair of deep frown lines in my brow that I've had for years had actually disappeared.
I have to work hard here. My desk faces Mount Tamalpais -- with no more than a dozen houses dotting an otherwise green landscape. Hawks circle and swoop below us. I have yet to live here long enough to know the cycle of the months the way I knew them back in New Hampshire -- the way I was able to smell them in the air, even -- but from where I sit I can watch the weather happen before my eyes: see fog roll over the mountain, watch it evaporate, track the course of rain and watch the sun set.
I study the silhouette of the mountain against the sky all day from my desk. I look out at the grand house of one big-name rock guitarist and another even grander-looking structure that would have been the home of Jerry Garcia. But even mansions are dwarfed by the mountain; it was here before rock stars and cappuccino joints, spinning classes and tantric sex workshops, and will remain when the rest is gone. Living as I do now, a life that seems so singularly devoid of history or past reference, I find the presence of that mountain on the horizon -- like Orion in the night sky -- reassuring. Something, at least, would appear to endure, even in California.
I knew no one in this town when I moved here. And I had always been a person for whom friends mattered a lot. So I set out to find them. Back home, my son Willy and I had been on a waiting list five years for a spot in our town's tennis club. And were still waiting, when we moved. In Mill Valley I started attending tennis classes at the local public courts. Everyone in my group was a better player than me, but they were oddly generous.
One woman in my class, hearing what I did for a living, didn't miss a beat. You write? she said -- with no information but my own casual mention. Good. Maybe you can help me with a grant proposal. Three hours later, I was drafting a presentation, seeking funding to educate populations living within the Brazilian rainforest concerning the threat to their environment. The next day, my new friend Jane was serving me tea in her kitchen.
Back home, people ask where you came from, where you went to school, where your parents came from, what you do. The information Californians convey seems to have a lot more to do with who we are, this moment. (I write... Jane needs a writer... maybe I can do the job.) Nobody I meet seems to care much about credentials, or what I did before today. Back East, they'd size me up for a year or two, and slowly -- very slowly -- consider meeting for coffee, after the snow melted next spring. I meet a Berkeley couple one weekend, and I'm bringing my family to their home for a Seder the next.
We're all new around here -- maybe that's it. Or maybe it's the knowledge that any one of us may disappear tomorrow as suddenly and unpredictably as we came. A New Englander may not be all that happy about his life, but you can usually feel confident writing his name in your address book in ink. Most of my friends back in New Hampshire have lived in the same place for a decade at least. Most say they expect to stay there always. (Which explains why I seldom see a New Hampshire or Vermont license plate out on the roads here. And how absurdly excited my children and I have become, the couple of times we have. Audrey actually jumped out of her car at a red light to greet a young man pulled up alongside her, with a bumper sticker on his car with the name of a New Hampshire- based band she loved.)
A New Englander might sooner stay on familiar ground forever -- even if he's unhappy there -- than change. In California, I get the feeling that most people regard their lives as tenuous and open to constant revision. Your marriage could end. The car could be repossessed tomorrow. You could lose your job, or change careers, or sexual orientation. Any one of us could (here's a phrase I never learned, till I moved here) go BK (as in bankrupt) any moment. The very earth beneath your feet could split open and swallow up your house. Wildfires might turn everything you own to ash.
Before my children and I moved out here, we heard a lot of opinions about what Californians were like. They would be shallower than Easterners, people said. Californians were instantly friendly (unlike New Englanders) but seldom any more friendly, on the tenth meeting, than they had been at the first. They were more materialistic than the people we were used to. Less hard-working or driven. Less neurotic. Less interesting.
Twelve months after moving to Mill Valley, I reject those early advisories. Some of the same conditions that made me decide to leave the East Coast -- namely, dark winter days, cold weather, loneliness... that edge people are always referring to, that Easterners are said to possess -- surely contributed to my capacity for endurance. Nobody who ever shoveled out a long driveway after a blizzard, only to find it buried again three days later, can entertain even for a moment the notion that the purpose of life is pleasure. In Northern California, it wouldn't be so hard to imagine.
Good weather is a birthright here -- nothing to talk about, celebrate or treasure. Back home, when spring finally arrived after the long and brutal winter, I always felt I'd earned it. (Not without additional cost, either. No sooner would the good weather arrive than so would the black flies.) A true Yankee might actually tell you a person couldn't properly appreciate May without having experienced February first. Most people back where I come from approach winter like a long, tough marathon. You don't enjoy it, but you sign up again every year. You pride yourself on the pain. A lot of New Englanders I know hold the not-so-secret belief that suffering is good for you. I moved to the sunny side of the street when I moved here, I tell my friends back East. And I'm not just speaking about the weather.
On his first day
of eighth grade in Mill Valley, my son Willy -- then age 12 -- expressed
to his brother Charlie and me his urge to establish a whole new identity.
In my first days and weeks in California, I gave in to some odd impulses myself -- most having to do with my uncertainty about who I was, what kind of a life I would design for myself in the new country I'd come to. I cut off my long hair. I bought a blender to make margaritas, a drink I'd never gone in for. At Parents' Night at my son's school it struck me that my hands looked different from the hands of every other woman, and the next day I got a $20 manicure -- first of my life.
I was living in the Bay Area, but I was also experiencing life as though I were a traveler on extended vacation. I attended a work party at the West Point Inn on top of Mount Tam, and lectures at the modern art museum; I rollerbladed in Golden Gate Park on Sunday and danced to Tom Petty at the Fillmore. I swam at the Bay Club and took daily walks along the Dipsea steps into Mill Valley, where I let my cup of coffee last an hour, as I sat and flipped through the pages of the Pacific Sun, picking up fragments of people's conversations. I bought fresh mozzarella and Parmesan in North Beach, and books of poetry at City Lights. But I also got myself my first tennis dress. I read the social pages in the Chronicle, often enough that I started recognizing the names of regular partygoers. I could tell you where Charlotte Mailliard traveled last month, and with whom she had lunch on Saturday.
I had a blind date -- and a couple of follow-up dinners -- with a tugboat operator and union activist, who sometimes called me, late at night or early in the morning, from his tugboat in the Bay. I'd stand on my deck, looking out to the Richmond Bridge, and study the lights, imagining that one came from the very tugboat with which I was now conversing. He came to see me in Mill Valley once, looking as uncomfortable, on the hiking trail, as Charlotte Mailliard might be (or maybe not) on a tugboat.
Who am I now, anyway? A lot of people my age express the sentiment of feeling trapped, all sense of mystery and possibility gone from their lives by midlife. For me, this year, there was little but mystery. Separated, at least physically, from all the things, besides my children and my work, that used to define me, I understood my son's temptation to create a new persona. Though I had done the same one kind of work for all my adult life, I read the help-wanted ads and fantasized alternative careers: cook, waitress, gardener, exotic (exotically old, anyway) dancer.
I was like a shopper, strolling through the giant mall that was San Francisco and Marin County, shopping for nothing less than a new life, and trying on a dizzying assortment of choices: Hiking the Sierra, eating oysters and drinking a martini high above the city. A non-practicing half-Jew, I celebrated Rosh Hashanah with my newfound relatives in Palo Alto, who embraced my children and me as if they'd known us all our lives. I signed up for training at the public access television station in San Rafael, with the plan of producing my own broadcast. I answered the personals ad of a Cuban man looking for a salsa dancing partner. (Turned out he wanted more than someone with whom to do the merengue. I had naively supposed we might just dance.)
I participated in a fundraiser featuring Bay Area writers. "They'll probably think we're gay," I said to my companion for the evening, an old friend around my age, visiting from New Hampshire.
"I'll be sure and mention my husband," she said.
"Don't bother," I told her. "I live in San Francisco now!" Walking in, arm in arm in our beaded dresses, I felt a thrilling sense of freedom, knowing that whoever you are here, it's probably OK. A few months before, I'd run into a man from a tiny town in New Hampshire, who'd moved here in his early 20s, recognizing the extraordinary difficulty of being a gay man in a place where even having a bumper sticker for a Democratic candidate might attract attention. Whatever issues of geographical strangeness this man had to overcome, moving here, San Francisco made him feel welcome as New Hampshire never could.
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