Saturday, August 11, 2007

Edisonian and Socratic

My long yearned for, anticipated, and held-up-on-a-pedestal summer vacation is all but over and I should feel a lot more depressed than I am. This doesn't mean that I'm not depressed, because I am, but not debilitatingly so. It's just great to have all the time off and I don't want to give it up.

Having been a student from about the age of 5 up to somewhere around 27 (with a few years off in there after graduating from college before I decided to go to law school and then dropping out of that two years later), these are all hugely formative years, and then having worked at Stanford University for something like five or six years in my mid-30s, and now, currently, that I have been working at an elementary school for nearly ten years, my inner clock definitely works on a "September to June" annual schedule, with what it presumes will be a long summer at the end before "the new year" begins again. Of course, as an adult (and not a teacher), I don't GET a long summer at the end, so there is always a period of shock when what is really the time of the summer blips by quicker than a blown flashbulb.

Children, no less than adults, or maybe I should say adults no less then chiliden, NEED that long, drawn out, nearly infinite time of freedom and I think it is harmful when they don't get it. I very much believe that it is those times that put you in touch with who you really are and why you are here. Of course, you ought to be able to maintain touch with that essential self no matter where you are and no matter what you are doing, but people are rarely able to, because there are too many distractions, too many obligations, and it takes too much concentration and effort. Perhaps the world is designed this way on purpose, because then it forces you to develop that strength and focus, and strength and focus are good things. One might say that a major difference between us and God is that God (whoever, however, or whatever you imagine this force to be) is infinite strength and eternal focus, whereas we all are very weak or scattered. So becoming stronger and more focussed about who we are and keeping to what our true purpose is in the midst of this "gymnasium of distraction" makes us closer to God.

Or maybe it is all part of some negative grand design to entrap and mesmerize a slave class who know nothing more than to shoulder the distractive burdens of a leisure class who themselves then have the time and freedom for individual pursuits. Sometimes for sure I think that and there is almost a preponderance of evidence to back that up, except there is also the tiniest chink of light piercing through that that shows that people DO have the freedom to break out of that, if only they would, and people definitely do. Particularly in the United States, still, but also in other countries, even if in the case of other countries in order to do so takes leaving there and coming here. The United States still receives more legal immigrants than any other country in the world, three times more than the country that is in second place, nine times more than the country that is in third place. And then there are all the illegal immigrants, sometimes estimated as many as twelve times our legal ones. So that's a heck of a lot of individuals choosing THIS country as their place on the planet to find freedom, and many, many of them do a better of job of securing that freedom than do our citizens (or maybe I should just speak for myself).

So, just as happiness is so often touted as a personal choice, so is freedom. But in order to have either, you have to know what you want and you have to have the courage to reach out and grab it. What was that fairy tale that as a child I always thought was very peculiar? It was something about a voice that kept saying, "Give me that bone!" and the person just hid under the covers of the bed. "Give me that bone!" the voice insisted (the person hid under the covers and quaked with fright). "Give me that bone!" the voice got louder (the person quivvered and shook under the covers). Finally the voice shouted at the top of its lungs: "GIVE ME THAT BONE!" (If that had been my mother speaking, it would have been "Goddam you, give me that fucking BONE!", but that's not what it said in the fairy tale.) So finally the voice shouts at the top of its lungs, "GIVE ME THAT BONE!", and the person shouts back, "TAKE IT!"

What on Earth does that fairy tale mean? I never knew. But now, maybe I do. There is some kind of very powerful force within you that WANTS something and all you are doing is hiding from it. "It's hard," I'm scared," "I don't know how," "I'm not sure that's what I really want," "I might fail," and so on. I know, because I have said them all millions of times. But finally, the desire just gets so insistent that you can't hide from it any more, so you throw off all resistance and surrender to it. "Take it!" Or another way of saying it, "Okay, I've so far failed, so why don't YOU just take over?" Probably a good idea.

So THIS time, instead of my using my summer vacation to go on a glorious trip (HOW many people said to me, "Are you taking a vacation this summer?", "Yes.", "Oh, where are you going?" as if "vacation" and "going somewhere" were synonymous), or doing what most people think is second best, "just relaxing" ("I've got some books I want to read," or "I'm going to do all the things in town I never had time to do before" or "I'm going to spend every day at the beach, soak up some rays, and improve my surfing skills", all very acceptable to the average questioner), I said, "I'm going to go within," knowing that answer wouldn't cut it, and it didn't. But that was my plan.

If anyone wanted a greater explanation, I would say that I felt like melted butter, a puddle so thin that I was almost nonexistent, and I wanted to use the time to coagulate into a recognizable shape again. But that was merely greeted by a blank stare. What, doesn't anybody need to get it together anymore, or are they already together? I must be the only person on planet Earth who doesn't feel together. Me and maybe the homeless people and the crazies in the mental institutions.

So, in all honestly, I approached this vacation with absolutely no set plan at all other than throwing the covers off and saying to the voice,"Take it!"

So how did it turn out?"

Very, very interesting.

One thing the voice kept saying was that I wanted all my stuff! Just like that, "I want all my stuff!" I was dead tired of having my possessions in gigantic spilled piles all over the floor, or in countless boxes buried in a storage unit or hidden in a closet, or under the bed, or in such a mess all over the couch that it takes an hour to find anything. I wanted to have it all, in one place, organized, and neatly put away where it belongs. But I couldn't do that here, oh no, I had been complaining for years that in this one-room studio apartment, there is no room to PUT anything, there is no room to DO anything.

The solution to that seems irritatingly obvious to the average stranger: "well, move to a bigger apartment."

No.

For one thing, when I moved into this apartment (which was probably lifetime move number 51), it was such a nightmare, it was the move that finally broke the camel's back, that I vowed, "I will move just ONE more place after this, because you can be sure that I will move out of here, but when I do, it will be to a house that I own and one where I plan to stay for the rest of my life." Now, of course, even I knew that I could never make a promise that would say that the house I moved into would be the one where I would stay for the rest of my life, but to simply move into a bigger apartment (ANOTHER apartment!), would be to violate very single element of that particular vow. So I just did not want to do it.

I had to buy a house, that was the only solution.

Yeah, right. This is LOS ANGELES! Does that mean anything to anybody? $700,000, $800,000, $1,000,000, $1,500,000 houses, unless you are willing to move to "drive by central", Compton, in which case it would be a hideous tiny shack with a razor wire fence around it for $350,000.

No, ain't gonna happen. Not now, anyway,

So hey, how about further out? Houses must be cheaper, there, right? I like listening to Books On Tape, two-hour commutes are doable, aren't they?

Well, yes, it is true, I found that there were pretty nice houses that I could afford in places like Taft, California (a bit west of Bakersfield) or California City (a bit east of Mojave), three hours away. Well, maybe I could just live in one of those houses on the weekends and commute to work from the apartment I have now. Is that affordable? Well, maybe, kinda. A bit of a pain, but that could be a solution.

Except doing a Zillow.com check revealed that those houses that are now selling for $250,000 were once upon a time, oh, say three or four years ago, selling for $35,000 or $50,000. Now, $35,000 or $50,000 I could do! But what on Earth economic fundamentals would make a house out in the middle of nowhere increase in value FIVE TIMES in four years? Absolutely nothing. That VIOLATES economic fundamentals. It is totally nonsensical, and I think I would be a stupid fool to get myself in 30-year debt for $250,000 in order to buy a $35,000 house. That's the way I see it. These are houses that nobody would buy for that kind of money except for the fact that they are desperate to live in Southern California and think it's either this or nothing and hey, they're going to go up in value anyway, right?

But I'm not desparate to stay in Southern California--not THAT desperate. I could see living in Florida, or North Carolina, or even Upper Michigan, say on the lakeshore around Traverse City (except for the winters...yikes!). Or maybe even a foreign country. (How about the lake region of Italy, say near Lake Como? I know, even less affordable than L.A. How about some island paradise in the South Pacific? Hum....) There ARE other options besides Southern California. But I DO have a good job here, let's not forget about that. But that takes us to problem number two, "why don't you just get another job somewhere else in a place that you can afford?" Well...I don't really WANT another job, not like this one. This gets into a discussion I don't have time for right now, but the gist of it is that along the lines of "I vow that I will only move to a house that I own and want to stay in forever" is the idea that "I vow I won't get another job, but next time want to be earning a living through some kind of enterprise of my own (such as making a living from my writing)." I've DONE the employment bit for way too long, now, and it was only meant to be "for survival". But now I actually could be retirement age, so it's time to finally grow up and be fully me.

So that REALLY makes it hard--I not only have to move somewhere else, but I also have to make a living there through some means other than getting hired and working for somebody else. But that's what that inner voice wants and I don't have a lot more time to keep on ignoring it.

So, sigh, I began this vacation feeling like I was living in a logjam and I thought about it and I thought about it and finally concluded that maybe, just maybe, I had to take just one more intermediary step...move to a nicer, bigger apartment where I would have some ROOM to get my head together and THEN I could work on manifesting the final solution. I could at least look, right, and see what exists out there.

Well, I tried, I really truly did. I devoured various apartment rental sites on the Internet. I poured through Craig's list. I studied the listings in rental magazines. I drove around looking at signs. Most of this effort was heartbreaking. In order to make the move at all worth the energy and cost, I made a list of things I had to have; without these, I may as well stay here. Air conditioning, a usable balcony (I mean by that that you can eat out there), a swimming pool, covered parking, two bedrooms, walk-in closets, a decent kitchen with lots of cabinets and counter space, and a fireplace. If this could be in townhoue mode (that means that the bedrooms are upstairs), all the better.

Oh, and it had to be "affordable".

Well, most of the elements were findable. The hard elements were a usable balcony (most of them were just narrow slips useful for only standing out there in the morning to determine if it were raining or not) and a fireplace. Covered parking was somewhat rare, too. At least that narrowed the looking down quite a bit...just scan for fireplace, which eliminated 99% of the offerings, then check out the balcony.

Price. Unfortunately, that had to keep creeping up. When I started this search, I wanted it to hover around $1,000 a month, with $1,300 my absolute top limit. (Right now I am paying $747 for the apartment, which includes a space in the parking lot, and $200 a month for a storage unit elsewhere, which I could eliminate by having my stuff WITH ME). Soon enough, that passed. It became clear that in order to get what I wanted, $2,000 a month made it easy, but keeping it down to, say, $1,500 a month was a chore. Basically, there was NOTHING decent at that rental range, and being in L.A. was about $300 a month more expensive that outer areas.

Finally, I found a place that seemed to be the answer, but it was more expensive than I wanted to pay, $1,650, but with all the other add-ons that were required (for example, you HAD to get renter's insurance, and in my apartment here, some of the utilities are included, which they wouldn't be at this new place), it would have gone up to more like $1,800 a month. It was a relatively new, glorious-looking immense apartment complex (they had something like 80 buildings and 4 swimming pools), in Santa Clarita, in the middle of about seven new housing developments in which all the houses were listed for $800,000 on up to a million and a half. I wanted it. I filled out the application, chose my renter's insurance policy, paid $35.00 for the credit check, gave them a $200 deposit to hold the townhouse I had chosen (an "Ibiza" model, which was three levels starting with the garage on the ground floor). This even had more than I wanted, such as full-size washer and dryer in the unit. And then left them all excited; they were going to run my credit check and call me later.

I called my friend Kate on my cell phone as I merged onto the 14 freeway, told her all about this gorgeous place and finally I would be able to have people over, I would have lots of room, now I could begin to live again. I purposely ignored the unmoving parking lot that I could see going in the other direction, from L.A. to Santa Clarita (and Palmdale and Lancaster), what would be my going-home-from-work route.

I was fine until I got home and waited for their call (which didn't actually come until noon the next day). It got to be 7:30 and they still hadn't called, so I thought I would go out to dinner "to celebrate". But instead I felt so sad. I noticed thoughtful little touches to the design of this apartment as I got ready to go out. Down in the lobby over the mailboxes, the manager had written one of her cute little notes on the notice board like she does. I was reminded at how clean, safe, secure, and well-managed this building is. As I walked by the swimming pool, I marveled over how clear and blue the water was, and how pretty the tropical garden in the courtyard was. A teacher I know (who works with disadvantaged kids for the L.A. public school system) approached me from the parking lot and I said, "How are you doing?" He said what he always does, which I like: "Can't complain about a darn thing!" We chatted for a moment about our respective school schedules and he told me some of his upcoming plans of what he was going to do with the kids. He's great, I love seeing him.

As I nosed my car out of the parking lot and down Franklin Street, and went past the coffee house, sidewalk cafes, and wine bar, I noticed with renewed eyes how "cool" and "funky" the neighborhood is and I was reminded of why I moved here in the first place. It's a place that draws a certain artistic and "film industry hopeful" crowd, some of whom actually make it, and regardless, their creative energy is good.

Then I arrived in Silverlake and went into Casita del Campo, a Mexican restaurant that I like and used to go to a whole lot, but lately hadn’t been to in over a year. The patio where I had hoped to sit was completely full, but as I was looking, a waitress that I like very much and am always happy to see saw me and said, “You want to eat outside?” I said, “Yes, but all the tables are taken.” “Here,” she said, “I’ll take you to another patio we have,” and she took me to one that in all the years I had eaten there, I never even knew existed. It was a quiet, beautiful space with nice lights strung back and forth overhead. It had a very private feeling. Besides me, there was just one other couple out there, over on the other end. I ordered a frozen margarita and started to feel better, although instead of a celebration, it felt like a good-bye.

The waitress took my order, but another waiter (one whom I also like a lot) brought it out to me. When he brought it, he smiled broadly and said, “It’s YOU!” Then he explained that the waitress who took my order had said to him, “Why don’t you take this outside to the side patio, you will be happy to see who is there.” When he asked her to explain further, she only said, “It’s a regular, just go see.” Apparently my presence there was a happy occasion, or at least, that’s how they were acting. That made me feel really good. It got me to thinking how often I would ever go there after I moved to Santa Clarita. Probably not too often, if at all. That didn’t seem right.

I enjoyed my meal and as I ate, I wondered if I could string lights overhead on the balcony I was going to get. That might be nice. But somehow I didn’t feel too excited about it. That whole evening after I got home, I felt that I was dreading my upcoming move, not looking forward to it. I looked around at the piles of mess surrounding me and instead of feeling relief that finally I was going to be able to straighten it all out, I felt like I had somehow failed in some kind of ancient dream. Moving just didn’t seem like the right answer.

The next morning I would have expected that I would have gotten up early, maybe even started packing for my upcoming move. Instead, I just stayed in bed until noon, when the phone rang and it was the guy from the new apartment calling, letting me know that my credit check had cleared and I could move in. “You are coming in to sign the lease today, aren’t you?” he asked. I said, “Yes, I guess so...do I HAVE to come in today?” “I thought you wanted to,” he said. “Well,” I responded, “you said that I couldn’t get the keys to the townhouse until I had gotten the electricity and phone turned on and had obtained renter’s insurance. I don’t know if I have time to get all that done today.” “Do you want me to change the move-in day to Monday, then?” he asked. “No,” I said, “I don’t want you to go into any trouble. I’ll come in today. Later.” Then I hung up.

I realized that I really didn’t want to move there. I felt like it was too expensive, more than I wanted to pay. I felt like I didn’t want to live out there in Santa Clarita. I felt like there was something wrong with the place, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I worried that the commute would be horrible. I felt like I didn’t want to go to the effort of packing up everything, having my Internet and phone moved, and changing my address everywhere. I also felt like I didn’t want to leave HERE, this tiny apartment, this neighborhood. At least, not NOW, not if I weren’t moving into my own house. This median transition suddenly didn’t make as much sense as it had at first.

But on the other hand, I had been more or less stuck here for over a decade, accomplishing very little, living only a partial life and blaming it all on these crowded conditions. What was wrong with me, was I just too lazy to make the effort of moving, or was I too phobic about change, or perhaps overly sentimental? It was time to move on, wasn’t it?

I really saw myself facing a fork in the road and I didn’t know which way to go. Finally I decided to meditate, really go inside and seek an answer to the dilemma. The thoughts that kept moving across my inner vision was that the truth of my life’s experience was that where I lived or how much room I had had been irrelevant to the level of my accomplishments. For example, when I lived in a DORM ROOM at U.C. Berkeley, I accomplished almost more than I have ever done in my life. And then in the apartment I rented when I lived in New York, that was smaller than where I live now, I managed to write a whole novel there, quite easily, in fact. To contrast to that, when I rented a three-bedroom house that sat on five acres of land in the mountains and that had TWO two-car garages, one of which, which I could have turned into a studio if I had wanted to, was, by itself, larger than the living area of this one apartment, I hardly ever wrote a word. So if I had argued with myself that SPACE was the issue, that argument was a lie. (After all, I know, for example, that J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in a cafe, so where there is a will, there is a way.) I had to have a better and more accurate explanation for my problems.

I finally got out of the meditation with the idea that I ought to now take my mind off this issue and help somebody else for a while. I knew there would be e-mails from employees asking for help, so I logged on and saw that, indeed there were three people asking for help, so I took care of them. And then suddenly I got the idea to check out that apartment review site I knew about and see what the residents of this Santa Clarita apartment complex thought about it.

Boy! The site had 51 reviews of that townhouse complex, and the total positive score was 29%. If you took a test and scored 29 out of a 100, what grade do you think you would get? That’s probably an F minus minus minus.

Every single thing that can make you hate a place seemed to have been represented somewhere in those reviews. Noise all the time, all-night rap music from gang members, drug dealing, ex-cons, beautiful-looking but crappily-built apartments falling apart all the time (toilets flooding, doors falling off, refrigerators stopping working, garage doors stuck open, or closed, at least one security gate always broken so that nefarious strangers were always roaming around at night, this area of town, despite all the new million-dollar houses was, apparently, a ghetto); unresponsive management, noise from either the nearby freeway or else the Metrolink train that goes by several times a day and night, frequent burglaries (no wonder the management MAKES you get renter’s insurance), a sheriff has to visit the complex daily. Oh, regarding that sheriff, it’s funny, I remembered that while I was there in the office, a sheriff DID come. One of the office staff said to him, “You are here about the domestic disturbance?” “No, I....” “Then it must be to investigate the crack dealer?” Gee, somebody else was taking care of the domestic disturbance and another sheriff was taking care of the crack dealer, THIS sheriff wanted to pick up a map of the complex to keep at his desk. Without at first getting it, I guess that investigating something at this complex was the main task of this particular sheriff’s unit. And I was going to LIVE there?

While I was reading these reviews, I got another call from the guy at the apartment complex. He said, “I made a mistake when I told you how much move-in allowance we grant you. I had told you $300.”

I was sure he was going to say, “I am sorry, but it is really only $100”, and if so, that would give me the perfect excuse to cancel the whole thing. However, what he said was, “It is really $500.” My mind thought, Yeah, right, you picked up on the hesitation in my voice before and that is what you are instructed to do when people balk. Really, all they need to do is get you the sign that lease, then you are stuck. From the reviews I read, NOBODY wants to renew after their year is up, and many of them get out of there anyway, even when that means paying off the balance of the lease. So I didn’t fall for it. I told him I didn’t want to rent it after all.

“I suppose that means that I lose my $200 deposit,” I said, but no. He asked if I were coming in today to pick up my $200 check, and I said “Yes” and high-tailed it up there before he changed his mind or found out he wasn’t supposed to give it back to me. It kind of hurt me to go back to that place and see what it looked like and ask for my deposit back. It looks so appealing, but now I knew the truth of what was going on underneath the surface. Thank God I WASN’T moving in there!

After that, I completely gave up on the idea of moving to a larger apartment.

Ever since then, I have felt like that was the best thing that happened to me. I was saved from making a terrible mistake. But, much more than that, I got other benefits out of it.

At first, I did feel that I had ruined my precious summer vacation. Instead of going somewhere nice, I chose to devote my time to finding an apartment to move into. And I had failed in that. But then I viewed that as an “Edisonian” failure, which I take from that story of Thomas Edison’s lab workers complaining about the 1,000 experiments that FAILED to find the proper element to use in making the filament for the incandescent lightbulb [the eventually-found answer was tungsten]. “We have FAILED a thousand times,” they cried.

“No, we have NOT failed,” Edison said. “We now KNOW of a 1,000 elements that won’t work.” Wow, I absolutely love that attitude. “The cup is half full” has nothing on Edison! “We now know of a thousand elements that don’t work!” That is positive and useful knowledge despite the fact that so far, no lightbulb has been produced.

Well, now I KNOW that the answer is NOT finding and moving to a bigger apartment. And the positive knowledge of that has made a huge difference in my attitude about this one, and in what I need to do to move forward with my life. It’s funny how an obstacle doesn’t have to be real, but only an idea that you have, such as the idea that I could not function in this tiny, cluttered apartment (well, it’s not that tiny). Now it doesn’t seem so cluttered (and, for one thing, I’ve found the energy to do some cleaning up), but for another, I can see how clutter can be an advantage, or I have made it into one. I don’t HAVE to take the time to maintain a certain standard of appearance; “clutter” takes a certain level of pressure off of me. This is my own private domain, like an eagle’s nest, and the only person it has to suit is me.

Well, I really would like it to be much more organized, but suddenly now that I am not going to have to pay $1,700 a month in rent, I feel amazingly rich. There is lots of storage potential in this place if you build shelves high up around the upper third of the wallspace. Buying the wood to make those shelves, even buying a skill saw for cutting the wood, is cheaper than that extra rent would have been. Heck, I could even hire somebody to make them for me, if I wanted.

Okay, so I don’t have air conditioning (but suddenly air conditioning units seem cheap), or covered parking (the car will just have to deal with it), or a fireplace (not essential, anyway). True, I don’t have a balcony, but lately I have been enjoying the table down by the pool. I’ve taken to bringing a book or my laptown down there, and I carry along a plastic souvenir pool-side drink glass from my Carnival cruise filled with a vodka drink or whatever and it’s really quite acceptable for now.

I really don’t want to take up the time to write about other things I managed to accomplish during this vacation after the apartment episode came to an end, but suffice it say, things that I had procrastinated on for YEARS I suddenly found the desire and the energy to do. I’ve also hammered out for myself a plan (“new year’s resolutions”) on how to do my writing that I think of as publishable . It doesn’t matter now if I take a year, or longer, to make this place more liveable and to get stuff published--success in miniscule increments is fine if that is what it takes. Having the kind of a house somewhere that I want, making my living by what I am supposed to do instead of survival work, will be mine when the time comes. What it has taken is understanding myself better, and I am much more self-knowing, now, about my self and its tricks and foibles and fears and laziness. Socrates, who said, “Man, know thyself” would have been pleased.

There is a metaphorical image that I have long had, based on the San Francisco Cable Cars. Cable cars, you may or may not know, don’t have their own motive power. All that comes from a central power station (that is pretty fascinating to visit) that pulls cables that run in slots in the streets along the various cable car routes. How the cable car moves is that the operator manipulates a device that GRABS onto the cable (think, maybe of a beginning skier grabbing onto a cable at a bunny slope and then getting pulled uphill). A full-tight grab causes the cable to pull the car at full speed, but grabs with less friction cause slower progress. So the cable car operator doesn’t grab on tightly at first, that would make the car move with a huge jerk. Instead, it is a gradual process of tightening the grip on the cable and the car increases speed.

Stopping the cable car is a matter of releasing the hold on the cable and putting on a brake.

As individual people, like a cable car, we don’t really have our own motive power. Sure, we can move around and accomplish things and even cause a lot of havoc, but that’s almost like a cable car that has let go of the cable and is now running amok, perhaps crashing down the hill of a street in San Francisco. It’s MOVING alright, but is it in the proper direction?

Ultimately, to go uphill, to progress in the right direction, you have to grab onto the cable, and that cable is found inside you and IT’S motive force comes from a central generating station the identity of which I will leave up to you.

Think what I should tell people when they ask me what I did on my vacation was go to San Francisco and ride the cable cars?

1 comment:

Bret said...

Sounds like a not so fun time to me. I guess we all wonder what we should do and if it is the right thing to do.

I hope all works out for you Tom.

Bret