Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Welcome to L.A.

The blooming season for a Southern California jacaranda is reported to be the months of May and June. Today, August 5, outside my front door in the courtyard of our apartment building is a jacaranda tree. Clinging to it is one spray of blossoms, still rich in color and obviously stubborn in spirit. Maybe today our teacher is the jacaranda.
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In its Sunday book section, the Los Angeles Times frequently achieves resonance with either current thoughts or an item from my internal list of major obsessions. This week it was two for one. The lead review was of Thomas Pynchon's new novel, which reviewer Carolyn Kellogg said had not only a main character but also a plot. I've not read Pynchon but I could relate somewhat as I try to muscle my way through "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace while struggling not to feel cornered by what I glumly suspect may be a mediocre IQ. The Pynchon novel is called "Inherent Vice" and is referred to a 60s noir. Does it get any better than that?

It coincides with recent thoughts as I had just reread Francesca Lia Block's "Dangerous Angels," the collection of her Weetzie Bat books, all with Los Angeles and certain of its denizens, glimpses of its past, at their hearts. The collection has a copyright date of 1998 but the first story's release is dated 1989. Ms. Block is especially gifted at expressing the sensory experiences of L.A., from anything that blooms to burrito stands and the heat itself.

"Witch Baby had seen sugar skulls and candelabras in the shapes of doves, angels and trees. She had seen white dresses embroidered with gardens, and she had seen paintings of a dark woman with parrots and flowers and blood and one eyebrow. She liked tortillas with butter melting in the fold almost as much as candy, and she liked hot days and hibiscus flowers, mariachi bands and especially, now, Angel Juan." from "Witch Baby" by Francesca Lia Block

Reading her helped me remember why I chose sunset as my palette for the True Colors exchange, which eventually became the book, the workshops, the movie, Broadway play and line of motor bikes. Well, not those last three but from an unassuming origin, the project grew up to be what it is.

We began with invitations from Lynne Perrella to take part in a journal exchange based on the theme of color. This was my first experience of such an undertaking and the first assignment, select your color, took time and thought. I no longer remember what time of year we began but inspiration can be daringly out of season and I remembered Los Angeles teenaged summer evenings, a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, espresso on the Sunset Strip, driving anywhere in a sports car, the beach and wine, Miles Davis and Bob Dylan and it felt more like its own universe than a color or time or place and so I became sunset for the purpose of both our project and a sense of self and home, forever seeking the precise combination of words that tells it as it is.

The Pynchon review had a sidebar excerpt of his interpretation of the Santa Ana winds, the headline telling, "Santa Ana winds stir dusty premonitions." In the review, Kellogg suggests that the page-long description demands a place next to classic passages by Chandler and Joan Didion. For me what happens during, or just after, the Santa Anas is that the light changes. Landmarks that had been blurred and distant become close and crisp. Sun glints off car surfaces in a way that is painful; there is too much piercing light. Distances shrink as the mountains draw near, the scrim of smog erased. Trees on a ridge can be counted rather than appearing as a grove, a clump. And something happens, or has happened to me, in this simple act of a shifted wind pattern. For moments or longer, the veil seems to lift and what felt impossible only hours before becomes almost real and certainly within grasp. It could be from this occasional meteorological event that all the dreams which Los Angeles represents were born

Sometime it feels like the affection/tolerance/rejection one knows from living with an alcoholic, when taking on simple tasks during a smoggy, summer heat wave seems overwhelming. Then the air currents begin to cavort in a different direction and while the temperature may go even higher, the sense of futility and oppression are swept away. This phenomenon in miniature is what I sense on an L.A. summer evening. Yes, you'll be sweating as you dress for whatever the night holds (unless you have killer, central air and the money to pay for it which, at 18, I certainly did not) but that won't last, nor will the memory of any part but the magic.

And once out in the world that is a Los Angeles summer night, there is night-blooming jasmine; there are all the songs you ever connected to driving freeways, there is anticipation - and its best friend, hope - there is being in the moment while sliding a toe into what-if?

I freely own the spell under which an August L.A. twilight holds me, knowing it may not be an experience shared by very many. But it has been with me more than 55 years now, from the night my Aunt Nancy came by with her red convertible, taking my mom, sister, brother and me for a top-down drive. We stopped for ice cream (mine was fresh peach) which she let us eat in the car, then I leaned back, staring at the tops of Pasadena's tallest deodars and beyond them the stars, knowing it was a night by which others would be measured.