New Coast, New-Old Bearings

HERE is Chapter One of our move to California, according to my daughter, Hilary, aged 7:

Harray, harray, I sed one day to my mom and dad.

"When are we going to get on the airplane?" I askte my mom.

"Ask yore dad. I am to bussy packing."

"Dad, when are we going to get on the airplane?'

"Why do you ask such a thing? Anyway, it is 8 p.m. we are going in 15 minutes."

"Dad I think I here the taxi."

"Yore rite."

"Mom, mom! Lets go."

Chapter One in my version would have to begin with the note from my friend Jonathan who, when he heard we were moving from Boston to San Francisco, couldn't resist giving me a copy of his favorite paragraph from his favorite novel, "All the King's Men," by Robert Penn Warren.

For the west is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you get the letter saying, 'Flee, all is discovered'.... It is where you go when you are told you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that's gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.

PART of what you do when you go is get new bearings. Given contemporary air travel, it's entirely possible to wake up one June morning in a large Victorian farmhouse in suburban Boston and retire that night 3,000 miles away in a bungalow with a fig tree in suburban San Francisco: your new home. The human mind can hardly keep pace with such fantastic physical transitions.

Within hours, all that was familiar in terms of physical setting is unfamiliar, from bird songs to shrubs to sunlight to air, and we grope toward acclimation by attempting to use our former "template" for the new alignments. Yet East or West, neighbors are neighbors. On our first day, 5th-grader Joe came over to say "Welcome to the neighborhood," and Gail brought us dinner on our second night.

In no time the lemonade stand was set up, the local clubhouse established, and the best penny-candy store explored. "Bubba's" became my new diner, replacing "The Town Diner." On the day our moving van arrived, I even ran into my high-school history teacher, whom I hadn't seen since graduation, at the art fair down on Main Street.

For several weeks palm trees thrilled our children; it was hard to accept that we could actually live in a place where they were not considered exotic. The redwoods are still unbelievable - their scale and sheer heft - even for an Easterner accustomed to old-growth forests. Seeing a redwood is like seeing a brontosaurus standing on the patio. One of my new colleagues at the school where I now work lives in a redwood grove with a tree that must surely date from the time before Columbus. It is a living tim e traveler, and humbling to behold.

Volkswagen "beetles" - "Herbies" as kids call them, after the Disney movie - are equally exotic. They have all but disappeared from Eastern highways, but there are hundreds of them, and a myriad of other classic cars, from overseas and Detroit, extant on California roads - even Corvairs.

One charming practice around here is to turn cars into artifact displays by gluing plastic toys and figurines all over the exterior. One particular vintage Toyota, famous all over San Francisco, is a reef of plastic toys, baubles, and Cracker Jack prizes.

In August, after two months in residence, the whole family took a long, hot drive down to Los Angeles to visit Gramma Evelyn and Uncle Mel. It was our first trip since moving, our first journey out from our new home, and a test of our sense of where home was.

On this trip, the ocean was on our right - all wrong. When driving south, the ocean should be on the left.

Months later, I still feel as if sunrise here takes far longer than on the East Coast, my theory being that there is so much more land to overcome before the sun can hit our bedroom window that actual daylight seems imminent for far longer than in an East Coast city.

Sunset, though, is a cinch: same in reverse - night falls. The moon runs just fine here; the North Star seems to be right where it ought to be. The compass suffers the normal deviations from true north. Navigation has been no problem.

To get the internal sense of direction adjusted, it helped to go to an Oakland A's playoff game in October and find that home base is aiming in roughly the same direction as it is back in Fenway Park. You cannot buy sushi at Fenway, however, as you can in Oakland; nor do they hawk bottled spring water in the Fenway bleachers. Unfortunately, the game we attended had a distinctly Red Sox ending: Toronto came from behind to win by one run in the 11th inning. We had left the stadium thinking it was in the b ag.

Since I'm accustomed to marking the passage of time by a change of season, and since there was no late-August shift in the wind, no Labor-Day whiff of autumn, it felt as if time simply weren't going by. The weather here is most peculiar - always perfect - making me yearn for a few clouds and rain.

Suddenly our life ceased to include "rainy-day activities." I'm filled with guilt when the sun is out and we stay indoors to read, bake cookies, play Monopoly, or watch a movie.

I've often thought back to the first person my wife and I met on our scouting trip, a waitress, who insisted that we would love it here because "there's so much to do!" Part of getting our bearings in this culture has meant dispelling that myth of the laid-back lifestyle.

There is clearly a Californian sense of doing that is distinct from the Bostonian. The Californian verb to do includes the sense of outdoor physical activity, and everything from architecture to language follows suit.

Average houses here are not built with discrete rooms for discrete activity. There is such free access to the out-of-doors, and such a consistent expectation of outdoor activity, that dwellings need only fulfill minimum expectations for shelter. And people go out: Up the mountain on your bike, to the beach with your surfboard, downtown on roller blades.

It's enticing. My Eastern friends may actually believe what I write them: "I surf every day and jam with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir on the way home from work." In actual fact, a fantasy came true when, 10 days after we moved into our new home, Jerry pulled up in his van and listened to me playing bagpipes on the neighborhood playground. "I'll be asked to tour with the Grateful Dead," I thought.

FORTUNATELY, schools have a climate all their own. As an educator, this means that both the new school where I work and the school where our children attend seem effortlessly familiar and comfortable.

Here we have found the sights and sounds to which we are accustomed: the rules of the recess games; the universal dress code of rock-and-roll T-shirts, jeans, and baseball hats (worn backwards); traders of baseball cards and stickers; the teacherly tone of voice at morning assemblies and in English-class discussions; the art on the walls and the songs in the air at the Christmas assembly.

The whole family has roller blades now - a California icon, as far as I'm concerned - which we wore for our Christmas-card photo. In December I did not think about snow tires, storm windows, the seasonal oil burner cleaning, or buying new snow pants for the kids. We were still barbecuing out back, "blading" in Golden Gate Park on Sunday, and going to the beach in January.

The West is where you go to do. There is a lot to do out here, and we're doing just fine. But we still play Monopoly on sunny days.

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