June 15th, 2005

Homes Away From Home

We're back from our second trip in two weeks -- a record for us, I think -- and I've had time to distill my thoughts about the experience, some of which I will share in a subsequent entry. For now, though, I just want to ponder the relationship between the two trips, which unfolded like a montage depicting "our" California.

Although Kim and I have vacationed more in northern San Diego County than anywhere else since moving to Tucson, it still doesn't feel like home in the way that the Bay Area does. To be sure, recent events have significantly deepened the range of associations we make in Encinitas, Leucadia, and Carlsbad. I imagine it will still be a long time, though, before the memories we've made there come close in stature to the ones we've made in the Bay Area. Right now, the San Diego area resonates for us more like the places familiar from our many North Coast excursions do: Petaluma, Healdsburg, Cloverdale, Highway 128, Mendocino, and Fort Bragg.

I'm speaking of the grown-ups here, of course. While Skylar really started to feel her connection to San Francisco in new ways during this visit, our cliffside camping trips have been a much bigger part of her life than ours, at least percentage-wise. That is, if you asked her which vacation spot she knows best or which one is most important to her, I'm almost certain she'd answer, "San Diego." Indeed, that's one of the reasons why I worked so hard to keep Kim from canceling the Bay Area trip. Even though we were all exhausted from the previous journey and she had a difficult week at work, I thought it was important for Skylar to reinforce the memories she made during last year's visit, when we stayed longer.

Hearing kdotdammit's stories about her family's annual trips to Lake Berryessa -- northeast of the Napa Valley, for those of you who are curious -- and reading her recent reflections on them, I'm reminded of the importance of the "home away from home," a place you travel to regularly, particularly for children. It's a lesson my mother also imparted in describing her family's yearly visits to Cape Cod. I didn't have that experience, at least to that degree of intensity. My family took vacations in lots of different places -- it frequently depended on where my dad was traveling for work -- but did visit some several times: Cape Cod, the California Coast, the Shenandoah range. I've often wished that we would have spent more time in those places, so that they would have become intimately familiar, like cousins you see every month instead of second cousins you see every four years. I'm not complaining about all the different locations I got to visit as a child, of course, but still regret that I wasn't able to develop an identity, not as one who travels, but as one who travels to a particular place.

I realize that my investment in Skylar remembering the Bay Area falls into a different category than my investment in her remembering the Encinitas-Leucadia-Carlsbad area. We've never lived in San Diego County. Since we moved to Tucson before she was two, though, her experience of living in California has gradually receded into the underworld of "pre-memories," that place where memories go when they can no longer be recalled directly, but only flash into consciousness unexpectedly: abstract, indistinct, out of context. I have a whole theory about the importance of pre-memories, why it matters so much that parents expose their babies and toddlers to experiences that will later be forgotten. I don't want to explain that theory in detail here, particularly since it's purely conjecture and not grounded in research, but it has informed my approach to traveling with Skylar.

In practical terms, my theory leads me to believe that it's important to revisit places where one's pre-memories were formed after one has started forming the sort of well-ordered, easily referenced memories that mark the passage from the pre-school years to the school years. In Skylar's case, then, I think it's important for her to go back to California often enough so that the time she spent there as a one, two, and three-year-old is a little closer to hand, more likely to emerge from the shadows and give definition to the memories she has made as a five and six-year-old.

I also believe that it's important for adults to return to places that matter to them often enough so that they remain somewhat familiar. It's important for grown-ups to have homes away from home too, places apart where they can go to be themselves, but with a difference. When I'm back in the Bay Area I feel more grounded in myself, more sure of how who I was became who I am. And that feeling carries over for a while after I return to my present home. With Kim it's assuredly more complicated, given the range of painful experiences she had in both the Bay Area and, to a lesser extent, San Diego. Yet I get the sense that she too feels more grounded when she gets back from a trip there, particularly now that she has been able to secure more control over those experiences by writing them as part of her book project.

I suppose you could argue that I'm trying too hard to control what I can't really control, when I talk about reinforcing memories and pre-memories. Curiously, though, it's all the reading I've done in psychoanalysis, as well as post-structuralist theories rooted in the reading of psychoanalysis, that has convinced me of the importance of repetition. Going back to the entry I posted last week with a passage from Sigmund Freud's Project For a Scientific Psychology -- or der Entwurf, as Jacques Lacan refers to it -- I think that something good will come from traversing the same mental pathways over and over again, even if the end result is a radical transformation of the self. It's not like I want everything to remain the same -- though I am given to that vice -- so much as I want the routes to difference to proceed over familiar territory, rather than to strike out for unknown territory that, paradoxically, will probably end up confirming the self that's already there at the beginning.

I think it's easier to become new, in other words, when you are walking in your own footsteps. Our minds are always making comparisons, regardless of whether we want them to or not. If we are in a strange place, one side of that equal sign will necessarily be a rather fixed notion of where we've come from, both literally and metaphorically. But if we're somewhere we've been many times before, place will become a common denominator that drops out of the equation, letting us see the difference introduced by the passage of time instead of the sameness we tend to fall back on when processing the passage through space.

When I look at the photo I've presented in this entry -- thank you zokah, both for taking such great pictures of us and for your wonderful hospitality -- I think of all the time we've spent at Peaberry's as a family, of our trips to Rockridge when we were still living in California, of last year's stay at Doug and Jillian's, even of the dreadful morning of March 9th, 2001 when I tried to compensate for my anguish over the previous night's horror by drinking too much coffee in the vain hope that it would force me to pull myself together for the talk I was giving later that day. I see further back in time, too. I remember getting miniature eclairs with Kim when the bakery across from Peaberry's was still Grace Baking Company. I remember hanging out in Rockridge with Caren, Barb, and Kari. I even remember when I first went to Rockridge, when the Market Hall was brand new and I met Keith Sadler for the first time at the Rockridge Café with Leanne, Hummer, and her sister Jen. While few of these memories are particularly deep with portent, the fact that the place I visited several times over the past few days is the foundation for all of them makes my recollection of them rich with relational significance. That's one modest example of my reasons for making a point of revisiting the places that have mattered to me, even if I sometimes end up staring, as Gertrude Stein did when she returned to her childhood home in Oakland, a place where "there's no there there." And it also demonstrates that I should probably be happy about the fact that some of our favorite places in the Encinitas-Leucadia-Carlsbad corridor now trigger more complicated responses in me than they once did. In the end, it's more important to register depth, the differences felt at each layer, than to bask on the surface.


I used to do it all the time. Starting in North Beach or the Castro or the Richmond or, most commonly, the Tenderloin, I'd follow every lane change to the Bridge, snaking around people making a left onto Van Ness or taxis emptying their passengers on Hyde. The Bridge was less panic-inducing, but separation was inevitable. I learned to track your taillights, my already-refined ability to identify a car by its lights sharpened into the sort of reflex a fighter pilot wouldn't mind having. And, when the number of Accords from the 1970s became overwhelming, a not-infrequent occurrence in the Bay Area, I went on instinct, looking for the right one, reading license plates at five, six, seven car-lengths and across lanes. "477-TTQ," is running through my head as I write this and even though it has been over a decade I wouldn't bet against my memory. Some lines are cut into stone that refuses to break.

Today I did it again. Only this time it was Camilla to Elm to Tucson to Prince to Cambell to River to First and then on up the incline. I so wanted to be in the car with you, but did the next best thing, pulling out in front of a white truck when I normally would have stayed put because I didn't want to lose you. There. It always sounded like a metaphor, even when we were a two Honda couple. These days, though, that impression is a lot stronger. I left the radio off, hoping you'd call. And then you did, as we approached Grant. Talking and tailing, tailing and talking. It almost felt like being inside you, two becoming one without ever quite getting there, the metal between us a conductor of feelings that would die if those last barriers really did fall away.

I approached the stop sign at Prince with dread. A car was bound to come between us. And it did. But as you pulled away towards Campbell, we were still talking, our phones tethered together by an invisible cord longer than the space between us. "I'm going to stop talking and listen to a few songs," you went on to say, as we approached First. I let you go, but kept following, my words redirected toward the computer screen I'd be sitting in front of later on, after dinner, now. I thought of your red Honda, how it was serviced in Elk, the way the custom sunroof folded up like a delicate piece of flesh, something you want to set in motion precisely because it's so fragile, because it opens into a window on the world. I thought of the North Coast, that last curve before Highway 1 curves inward. The Lost Coast lies ahead, mountains looming in the mist. There's a black sand beach far below. We used to scramble down to it, delighting in the remoteness and the risk. It always seemed like the end of the world.

I can see you on the pull-out far above, your body poking through the sun roof, hat glinting in the half-sun. "I don't like the way I look in those pictures," you told me, sitting in line at the airport. You meant the ones from your old workplace. But the one I have in mind fits the bill too. You're far too thin, a woman starting to disappear, so close to being lost but smiling bravely in the hope of staying found. Some days I think you're finally gone, that what mattered then has ceased to be solid. And then you remind me. When you buried your face in my chest today, trembling, I reached out to hold you fast. I pressed my fingers into your arm, smelled your hair, wanted you to stop crying, hoped you'd never stop wanting to cry on me. I'll follow you anywhere. I'll slip in and out of traffic to keep you in sight. I'll stay for the whole ride home.