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Detritus: New Year Inside A Cloud

Really, that’s not a comment on my mental state — I’m at my dad’s
house in the foothills, and the house is literally engulfed in a cloud. If
my dad walks out to the garage, it gets hard to see him. When I look out
the front window, I can’t see the street below. The bank of red apple
plants just descends into grey. The house across the street is just a few
hazy lines of Christmas lights. Dad says he hasn’t seen anything like it
since he’s lived here, but Ariel and I remembered the morning in sixth
grade when you couldn’t see a block in front of you driving down Lake
Street, and when we got to Poly you could stand on the edge of the field
and watch your friends walk away and vanish, heading for the south
campus. You could walk onto the field yourself, and the clouds were so
thick you could think for once all your wishes about the school going
away, all the vain girls and mean boys in it disappearing, had worked.

* * *

We avoided the Rose Parade again this year, my friends and I. Childhood in Pasadena is spent wishing you were old enough or well-connected enough
to stay up all night on the route; adolescence spent scheming up nefarious
plans for marshmallows, alcohol, sex, and smoke once you get there; and
when you’ve done it once or twice, woken up at eye level with the Valley
Hunt Club’s road apples, with silly string in your hair and a bunch of
mouth-breathing tourists muscling into your hard-won inches of curb, you
spend the rest of your life savoring the knowledge that you did it and
never have to again.

At the stroke of midnight we were on the beach in San Pedro, exchanging
pennies in a calmer Scandinavian ritual Pia introduced us to and
reflecting on our year. I was momentarily startled when someone said that
September 11th was the worst part of their year. It’s so utterly
intertwined with everything in my life right now I didn’t even think of it
as the worst part of mine. I can’t separate it out.

We’d spent the evening making as much of a mess of the Feldmeths’ kitchen as was humanly possible — shortening-filled blenders overflowing,
frozen Jello and giblets concoctions dripping on the floor, artificially
colored margarine staining the grout pink, frying turkey necks splattering
purple ketchup and grease all over the stove, the stench of okra brownies
filling the room. I jammed a pair of fried pig’s trotters into cups of
discolored gelatin, painting their nails with aerosol cheese. Watching the
footage later — we were filming a parody of a popular cooking show — my
father threatened to call the vegetarian police on me.

I don’t know what’s happened — I’m not the vegetarian I was a few
years ago, the one who whole-heartedly backed the demands of a neurotic
roommate who banned all meat from our apartment, insisting she’d vomit if
so much as a cold cut grazed the kitchen counter. I ate bacon at the
family’s Christmas brunch this year with little guilt.

I dunno. I guess it’s fatalism. I’m vegetarian because the meat
industry impacts the environment in terrible ways; because I want to see a
world with less killing. I was vegetarian throughout 2001, and what impact
did it have on the world? I was also tear-gassed in Quebec in 2001. What
impact did it have on the world?

We talked by the fire for a while after midnight, and then I went down
to the shore. The waves at night make lines across the horizon that
thicken and darken. They crest too quickly for the mind to catch. Before
you can say “Now” — all that remains, a surge of foam and noise,

* * *

When we came back from the beach we watched L.A. Story. This was our
favorite movie in high school. I washed dishes throughout most of it — we
glutted on the movie back in the day, and I didn’t know if I wanted to see
it again, but of course we all knew it well enough to sense when the good
parts came on, so I ducked back in when I felt like it. Like the first time Steve Martin catches the eye of that beautiful British woman, with
the harp music in the background, and when Steve Martin is roller-skating
through the museums. And when he’s writing “Bored Beyond Belief” on his
window with marker. And I caught the moment when the four drivers motion
each other to proceed through an intersection, and end up crashing into
each other in a lovely pinwheel shape.

The movie has some of the silliest social parody in the history of
American film (witness the coffee-ordering scene). I think for me what’s
Californian about it is not its subject matter, but the totally giddy
sense of abandon which drives it. New York is so serious about its grimy
patina of social cachet you could never make it the subject of a film like

I was glad to find the movie had aged with me. I’d never thought much
about the concept, but it’s one that resonates with me: a guy gets tired
of the superficiality of L.A. but finds redemption in its surrealism (and, if you’re paying attention to the fascinations of the camera as it takes
in the local flora and architecture, also in its Mediterranean
atmosphere.) It’s Steve Martin’s movie, both acting and script, and it’s
why (along with his fantastic short story Hissy Fit) I like him
best as the writer of Los Angeles’s odes. He gets it. If you’ve lived
here, you know what he means when he talks about L.A. as a “land of
abundant and compelling almosts.”

* * *

Tonight at dinner my dad tells me one of the first words I really
learned to savor was “toast.”

“To-o-o-a-s-s-t,” my dad mimics, making a funnel out of his lips. The O
is very soft and round. He says I used to sit in my high chair and croon
it to myself, fumbling over the toast with my hands. “To-o-o-o-a-s-s-t.”

I don’t remember this, but I do know that when I hear a word or phrase
that particularly pleases my ear, I have a tendency to mouth it silently
until I catch myself and worry that I’m scaring away anyone who might have
issues with autists. Actually, I attribute much of my success with foreign
languages to this practice. Sometimes I catch other people doing it, and I
feel better. One or two of my good friends from high school do. All of us
are good with languages.

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