Feb 28, 2003

Hi I just started my blog. Here's my first entry. Actually it's from a journal piece two years ago. I just moved back to LA from NYC. Here's a piece I wrote there. More to come

New York Journal #16: Summer 2000

I am not that wild about summer. I don't like the heat, I don't like tourists, I don't like I'm not rich enough to be a tourist. And I grew up in LA, where it is always summer; where there are no changes of seasons, seasons except when Neiman Marcus changes its windows. LA is an endless traffic jam of convertibles and tourists and uppity agents on cell phones; a culture of RayBans and Venice Beach T-shirts and dry cleaners with headshots on the wall. It's not my season.

It wasn't like that when I was a girl. I loved summer then. I could swim in the ocean for hours and go to sleep at night feeling the tide still listing in my blood. I loved summer: not just because it meant no homework, or that my best friend Linda and I could ride the cul-de-sacs on her banana seat longer since the sun didn't set till 8:30. Not just because the peach tree would give us hundreds of peaches for pies and cobbler, or because my favorite cousin Jan and I would harangue our moms till they brought one of us to the other's house to spend a week. "You gotta come down!" Jan would say. Which I never understood because she lived in the Mojave Desert, 300 miles north of me.

The main reason I loved summer was because my father would take us on long vacations for three weeks at a time. For 49 weeks out of the year he would stalk in from work and throw his briefcase down against the wall and curse the Russians or the Democrats or the stock market. We'd sneak away, resentful or frightened. He could never say sorry so he would say, let's take the dogs for a walk. We would walk them around the block and count how many times they went pee, and dad would tell us about the big vacation we were going to take. We would forget the yelling and the scuff marks where his briefcase landed. For those three weeks we were all buddies and the only thing he got angry at were the cops who gave him speeding tickets.


By the time I was ten years old I had seen 36 states, four Canadian provinces and two cities in Mexico. We visited national parks and historical monuments: Bryce Canyon and Yellowstone, the White House and Gettysburg. We were like pioneers in a land rush, racing against a clock. Maybe Dad knew that, because when his kids got older the last thing we wanted to do was to be stuck with him in a car for weeks on end.

Wherever we went, there was a piece of history or geography to learn about, and Dad knew all of it. Yellowstone blew geysers because of the gasses below the earth's surface. The Grand Canyon was made from a river etching itself into the sand for millions of years. We hiked down a huge crater made by a meteor that hit the earth millions of years ago. It was all so big, trying to wrap myself around that sense of time. But Dad explained it and I understood.

When I was five and we had money, Dad bought a new station wagon with cash and the next day we drove to Canada. We sailed to Alaska and rode the train as far as Winnipeg, watching the expanse of country and alien towns speeding by like pages of a flip book. We stayed in a Victorian hotel that had elevators so old a man had to stand inside and take you where you wanted to go. They sold Lifesavers in Lemon Only and Cherry Only, and the wrappers were printed in English and French. The elevator man took my sister and me to the basement, where we walked down a hallway that snaked with air ducts and smelled of laundry drying, until we came to a massive indoor pool. The room echoed from voices and paddling. Nancy cried, it was to big. It spooked me too, it made me think of Victorian ladies in white dresses, sinking to the bottom of the pool like the Titanic. I stood silent, sucking Lemon Lifesavers, hearing the echo of paddling and the smell of laundry drying.

Dad's summer vacations gave me a sense of how big the world was, how different. Once we stopped at an Amish general store that sold feed and Plain Clothes. I asked dad what that meant. He pointed to a group of ugly women in black dresses. Dad said they couldn't have things like zippers because their religion forbade it. I was taken with an idea: if my parents forgot me and drove away, what would my life be like? Would I have a dad with a strange beard who forbade me ride a bike with a banana seat? It fascinated me. It was all America: everyone ate McDonalds and watched the Brady Bunch; but it was a foreign country every time we got out of the car. Here the kids here walked to school through pine trees. There, they watched the sun set over desert. Some played in fields where Confederates died; maybe there were still Union bullets in the ground. I felt like my sister in the pool room: small and sinking like the Titanic.


The last good trip we took was Back East. I was eight, I still idolized Dad. But my older brothers were in high school, they had discovered sarcasm. Dad tried to keep us together with car games and stories about the Civil War, like how the reason Gettysburg happened was because the Confederates wandered into town looking for a shoe factory. But Rob and Jim didn't want to listen or play. This was bad; Dad was taking us to Pittsburgh, his childhood home. He wanted us to make a good impression on his brother. Uncle Jim worked for the Pentagon, he lived in a hi-rise and had a new wife and a blue phone with push buttons. My brothers didn't talk. It was just Uncle Jim bragging about his hi-rise apartment and his blue phone with push buttons. We didn't stay long.

We drove west past corn fields and silos and water tanks that looked like giant daddy long legs. But when we stopped to take a picture, only my sister and I got out. Rob and Jim stayed in the back seat. We drove through Iowa and saw the place where my mom was born. We'd been going all morning when we reached a town with only a few streets and a filling station. Mom pointed the car down a lane. Dad slowed halfway down the block. Mom stared at a house with an oval stained glass window in the front door. She cried a little and we drove away.

We drove on, playing License Plate and I Spy and Animal Vegetable Mineral. Every time my sister and I saw a dead rabbit on the road we made a raspberry sound. Mom hated that game. Three hours outside of Custer's Last Stand my brother Jim got out and started screaming. "I don't want to drive any further! We get up and drive. We eat and drive. We piss and drive some more, just to reach some motel and go to sleep and get up and drive again! I'm sick of it! Sick sick sick!" We got to Dodge City, hopped on the Super Chief and got home a day early. That was the last good vacation we ever took.

The next year my oldest brother Rob went to South Africa. He came home speaking another language, eating curry and disagreeing with everything my father said. Jim was off somewhere playing Neil Young on his guitar. We didn't know where he was much of the time.

The next summer was our last family vacation. Dad rented a motor home and we took the dog and went to New Mexico and Arizona. It was the same trip we had taken five years earlier. I think dad wanted to recapture the time when we all loved him and saw him as God. But everything had changed. My brothers were at that age where they didn't truck with my dad. Rob left the day after graduation to bike across country. Jim hiked to the bottom of Grand Canyon with his stoner friends. He only agreed to let us pick him up at the South Rim after he hiked out. He took his time getting to the top. And everything else was different: my sister brought her friend Jane, she wanted to play with her and not me. We didn't stay at motels and collect miniature soaps. We stayed in campgrounds with greasy people and angry dogs. Mom hated cooking on one burner. And my father. He cursed every time we had to empty the septic tank or gas up the motor home. He hated the man who rented it to him. He'd brought his briefcase and his Russians with him. There was no escaping anymore. The next summer I went to camp. We never took a family vacation again.

My junior year in high school I asked my parents if I could go with my drama department to London and Paris. My dad got angry. "Why do you want to go there? It's unfair for the drama kids who can't afford it. If one of you is going to go, all of you should be able to go!" As if Dad had ever been a socialist. I wanted to go to NYU or Columbia for college. I had the grades for it. Dad wouldn't pay. "No child of mine is going to New York." Or Berkeley. Or Yale. Or anywhere where people were richer, smarter or more educated than he. I took my junior year abroad. I paid for it myself and I didn't asked his permission. He still managed to complain, "what is the point of going there?" I answered, "to get away from here."

I was furious that a man who had given me such a curiosity about the world would want to squelch that curiosity. It was evil, I could hear it in the scrape of his voice. I decided those family vacations were never about showing us the world, they were all about keeping his world together and us in it. Everything was about keeping his world together and us in it. But one by one we all left. My eldest brother never looked back.


It takes a child years to learn that her parent is not God. It takes her even longer to forgive him for it. In the ensuing years -- in between crying, journaling, beating a pillow with a bat -- my therapist asked me what good things my father had done for me. That was easy, the family vacations. "No not things, Susan. Do you remember any time in which he saw you in trouble and came to help? A time when you were sad and he comforted you? Was he ever your hero? Did he ever sacrifice himself for your sake?"

Yes, I repeated. "Summer vacation." Sitting on my bookshelf is a stuffed animal from my chilhood: Fuzzy. Every bit of fuzz has been worn off. One of her glass eyes is just a socket with blue ink painted over the threadbare cloth. Her pink ears have been painted over with shoe polish. I loved her, I took her everywhere. She was my security blanket. Mother Deprivation most likely. On a trip through Oregon, Dad stopped at a hardware store in Eugene. I followed him in. I remember looking at wrenches. Thirty minutes later on the road, I panicked. I had left Fuzzy in the hardware store. With much groaning and reprimand, the car was turned around and we collected Fuzzy on top of the wrench table.

A week later we were due to take a train: a much-anticipated ride that included an eight-mile tunnel. It was all by brothers had talked about. They were on the cusp of puberty, and Dad had begun to feel them pull away from him. But they still loved trains, and this ride was going to bond them. We had taken a long ferry ride across Lake Chelan and were due to meet the train in a few minutes. Dad took me to the dockside diner to wait while he collected the rest of the family from a gift shop. I sat on a bar stool, watching the ferry boat pull out across the lake. I turned around to watch a man pulling at a nob on the cigarette machine. My skin went clammy. The noise in the room faded. My stomach dropped. I had left Fuzzy on the ferry boat. And the ferry boat was gone. My father came back to collect me, he asked what was wrong. I said nothing, He asked me again and I said nothing. I could not move. He took me down from the stool and made me tell him. Fuzzy.

He made us wait for the ferry to return to collect her. We never got on that train. Dad pulled the car to the side of a road that fronted the train tracks. My brothers stood up on a rise and watched it pass. I can still see their backs, erect and pitched forward in disappointment; my father standing off to the side, watching them seethe. I wonder if it was a choice between losing them or me. If he knew. He did know how much that stuffed animal meant to me.

I realized that both were true: Dad wanted so much to keep his world together and to keep us in it. But even more so, Dad was afraid of us leaving him behind. That I could understand. I felt it in that Amish General store. I felt it standing in that dockside diner.


I fell in love this summer. A guy I met at a wedding. He is moving to the east coast, and we have been corresponding via email. You know those initial emails where you try to impress the other person with your intelligence and wit, reveal enough of your heart to make them love you; but not too much to send them running. He emailed me about his upcoming move back to New Jersey where he grew up. He is excited about the cross-country drive. He wrote me, "you get awestruck by the totality of America and the vast possibilities and the endless Kansas nights and all of it ... " I read his words, and all those summer nights came bleeding back. I saw a twilight sky, and remembered one night in some nameless Midwest town, my sister and I sat with Dad on the edge of a motel pool, drying in the night heat, squinting until our eyelashes blurred circular rainbows around the moon. The sun had set long before but the sky wasn't yet dark. How come it stayed light so long? I asked him. Dad explained that light hung in the dust particles. There was more dust in the air here in the midwest, not like where we lived near to the ocean. Then I saw a dashboard, and remembered those nights driving through Utah or Montana, Dad searching the AM dial for a station coming from far away. Maybe another state. Dad explained that at night the atmosphere cooled off and got smooth, so the sound waves could bounce off the atmosphere and travel further. I looked up at the night sky and imagined the stars smoothing out before us. I was in awe of my father. But that was long before I realized he was just a man, an imperfect one; and before he realized I was my own person, not someone he could control.

My parents had an anniversary this summer. I wouldn't say celebrate, my father can't get out of bed. His childhood polio finally claimed every muscle and tendon in his legs. He had a big day last week, he got to sit at the kitchen table for lunch. I asked Dad if the gift for Year 53 was a bag of Depends. Touché, he answered.

He asked what I had done this summer. I told him I had gone to Vermont for two weeks, where I saw fireflies, and how I first saw fireflies that summer Back East. He didn't say much I could understand. His speech is slurred and he can't sit up in bed. But I heard him quite clearly when he said the words he always had a hard time saying: I love you. I think about you often.

I actually am enjoying summer this year. So what if I can't be a tourist in Paris: I have been a tourist in Coney Island. And Vermont. I've spent Sundays in Central Park with a Frisbee, and did swing dancing in Lincoln Center. I have seen foreign films and fell in love, and stayed up til 2 AM talking long distance. Just the other night I heard a live saxophone drifting out of an open window. I marveled, even sound sounds different in the summer; almost thicker and louder and more lazy. Maybe sound waves travel differently in the heat. I should call my dad and ask him, I bet he has an answer.

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