Love and Sensitivity

Things I Knew Nothing About (Part 2)

The following is part two in a list of things I knew nothing about before owning a home. Some of them are simple or profound joys. Some are great headaches. This is not to say I have any advice for handling investments (though I know Lex does), but rather that during the last few years I have gradually become less ignorant of these particular things’ existence.

21. Inspections; 22. Brown Spiders; 23. Craftsman Style;

24. Seismic Retrofitting
When we had the home inspection, which is a legal standard yet (incredibly) based entirely on trust between naïve homebuyer and weathered professional, the inspector went into the attic and under the house and at the end of the day told us everything was perfect except for some things he assured me were trivial and we could fix ourselves. He judged the house livable and the whole thing was rather uneventful, logistically, and the point of relaying this banal detail of the home-buying process is not to foreshadow some calamitous structural failure in my story (knock on wood), which could then satisfy my hyped-up noir vision of Los Angeles. Nor can I parlay structural failure into an editorial about the inherent problems within the building inspection system, leading to bribery in the LA Department of Building and Safety. Rather more notable, for the sake of this essay, was a piece of good news—good according to the inspector—that sparked in me a previously unheralded feeling of pragmatism.

He said the house had been “retrofitted.” (By whom, I’m not sure. He was the one using passive voice.) Within minutes I had learned from this visit with the inspector that: one, there is enough potential of an earthquake for seismic retrofitting to be a selling point in the LA housing market; two, because of the seismic retrofitting, there is (allegedly) a decreased chance of this very expensive stack of wood and metal burying Lex and me; and three, we could, consequently, save some money on the homeowners’ insurance (#25).

This practical concern with safety and investment was the first indication of a departure from my previous, blissfully ignorant life. The inspector’s casual reference to something that perhaps I never wanted to know hinted at a new world completely sucking me in. Even three years earlier I wouldn’t have been concerned that seismic retrofitting is, according to Wikipedia, “predominantly concerned with structural improvements to reduce the seismic hazard of using the structures.” And furthermore, “that there is no such thing as an earthquake-proof structure, although seismic performance can be greatly enhanced through proper initial design or subsequent modification.” Now, I had heard of elaborate counterbalance weights and magnets in hundred-story skyscrapers in places like San Francisco or far-off Taiwan. And I was happy my house was deemed safe. However, I had no idea how our house had managed to be “enhanced through subsequent modification.”

Yet you can see how my newfound pragmatism quickly led to neurosis. As far as other potential hazards on the property: I could at least assume the Mexican Fan Palms would be inured to natural disasters, evolutionarily speaking, due to their prevalence along this so-called “Ring of Fire” surrounding the Pacific and probably also, more personally, encompassing Edendale. However, for most of us, the logistics of living in this land of colliding tectonic plates and quaking houses (“retrofitted” or not, “enhanced” or not) are a little hard to understand, let alone face head-on. The physics also are beyond my comprehension, though certainly there is no giant magnet on which this house can float.

26. Contingency Removal; 27. Frost Line Depth; 28. Property Taxes; 29. Daylilies;

30. Home Depot
My reluctance to “settle down” was not founded in any conflict with my partner. Anyway it was she, great roommate that she is, who prompted my first mature contemplation of committing to a property altogether. Rather, it was a kind of wavering before an inevitable leap. I knew what we wanted, but since caution before such an endeavor seemed inarguably wise, I waited. From another angle this may present as cowardice, but only if one’s prudence reaches beyond pragmatics and stretches into outright avoidance. I don’t know, however, where this line would be drawn. Lex and I at one time had made a deal that we wouldn’t talk about any other inevitabilities for six months, at least until the move to Los Angeles was complete, even though all the steps we were taking in our relationship would lead to finding a nice place to “settle down” together. I was hesitating if for no other reason than to hold onto some hedonistic keepsakes of irresponsibility, which though small do not fit in any box. I realize this sounds stereotypical, or even cliché, but I’d hoped my feelings in the face of a move seemed common and, consequently, perhaps more understandable.

31. Agave; 32. Clumping vs. Running Bamboo; 33. Low-Voltage Lighting; 34. No VOC Paint;

35. Lawnmower Blades
We’d barely lived in the house a month, but had to hit the ground running when it came to yard maintenance. We’d have no “mow and blow” (#36); when the grass has grown high enough that the tips reach to the sky in little four-pronged florets of seed, making the yard look like the wild prairie, we do it ourselves.

I grew up in a house with a decent-sized yard, and, being a hyper little gripe, I often got bored over the summer. So bored one time that I asked my mother if I could mow the lawn. She said no, and for a long time I assumed she thought I’d mess it up. Here was my big chance as an adult to prove her wrong and expertly clip my own grass. It turns out she just knew that that shit’s hard; that really I wanted no part of it. On top of the mowing you have the edging (#37) and dragging the clippings to the compost (#38). Now Lex and I argue over whose turn it is to mow the lawn, yet inevitably one of us has to do it.

We bought the lawnmower off Craigslist. It’s small: the guy showed us how it works, and we folded down the handlebar and fit it in the back of a hatchback. It’s an electric lawnmower (#39), which means it plugs in to the wall. We bought a fifty-foot extension cord. I guess scientifically speaking it’s more efficient than using gasoline but because you have to reverse and pivot so as not to run over the cord, using this thing is really more like vacuuming.

I wear my tennis shoes with high cotton socks so my ankles and shins won’t be green when I’m done. I listen to Bob Marley on my headphones so I’ll be relaxed and come closer to appreciating the ritual. Someday I hope to listen to the music over a boom box. I’ll have my shirt off, perhaps to air out my beer belly, and Lex will bring me a tall, frosty glass of fresh lemonade. Hopefully never vice versa.

I also drape the cord around my arm or leg like a vacuum cord, and I never pick up the leaves or other debris beforehand because the machine is self-mulching. I’ve caught myself with the cord entangling one ankle while with my other foot I try to kick a rock out of the way, all the while careful not to release the lever because it’s a little finicky and hard to get the machine going, and I realize that it’s not like a vacuum because it could take my foot off.

One day, Lex arrived home just as I was finishing up. She was on the phone. I waved to her but didn’t turn off the mower, so the noise that to me had become the background drone of my chore, caused her to rush inside. I felt ignored, and anyway I wanted her to get out the edger, but the job was left to me. Another time, I arrived home as Lex was finishing the lawn. I noticed a small sliver of uncut grass and told her she missed a spot. She only looked at me and I understood that, as punishment for pointing it out, the missed spot became my responsibility. I got out the edger.

40. DIY; 41. Pruning; 42. Trimming; 43. Flowering Plum;

44. Growing Season
When one of us goes out of town, we pretend that whoever is staying home is going to sleep better than they have in weeks, without “the sweat factory” next to them. Either she or I will be able to spread out, “like an octopus,” as Lex would say, even though really she sleeps like an octopus even when I’m beside her.

However, when she is gone, I still sleep on my far, unmade side of the bed, just like I still hang my towel on the same far hook in the bathroom. I’ve come to terms with my fate of using the far towel, and, rather than sleep “like an octopus,” I leave a pillow on her side of the bed.

45. Oil Additive; 46. Banana Tree Removal; 47. Yellow vs. White Gold; 48. Weeding; 49. Chilaquiles;

50. Watering Cycles
If there did exist structures so earthquake-proof that those of us living along the “Ring of Fire” would no longer have to worry about earthquakes (perhaps for the reader “worry” is too strong a word, in which case substitute “ponder”), there would still have to be a radical, fool-proof earthquake predictor to save us in the case of the unpredictable (a volcano under the San Andreas Tar Pits?). Then maybe the fright of the unpredictable that is so specific to natural disasters would be removed entirely from the cultural psyche (i.e., Angelenos would no longer have to worry about our houses falling down on top of us), and then wouldn’t Los Angeles as a concept be changed completely? Would New Age wisdom, casual dress codes, drugs, telecommuting, speeding on the highway, and Michael Bay movies all suddenly become taboo? Granted, unless one has some kind of compulsive disorder, the mere threat of an earthquake probably doesn’t affect one’s everyday life; yet, the location at the end of the World (metaphorical) and the danger of the land falling off the face of the Earth at any moment (not metaphorical) have shaped California and the rest of the world’s perception of California.

Even if seismologists never find a way to sew up the San Andreas Fault without altering the normal course of continental shift and imploding the planet, thereby leaving California at risk of transforming into a mound of rubble drifting menacingly toward the Japanese, you would think Plan B would at least be getting a message on our phones telling us exactly when it was coming? But then wouldn’t we miss that sense of overwhelming end?

The arrogance that made Los Angeles a global metropolis in the twentieth century depended on rubbing it in the face of the inevitable outcome, because if something were determined (predetermined) to change at any moment, any perceived or desired outside agency on our part would be delusional. Therefore we might as well do whatever we want and feel powerful doing it.[i] If we knew exactly when the end was coming because of some innovative warning system, or knew it was definitely not coming anytime soon, life (existence; Hedonism; the end) would be really, really boring. Instead, to pay tribute to our status at the end of the Western World, as a place for dreamers and restless souls, Angelenos cultivate a whimsical fatalism as an insult to destiny. They cultivate an arrogance to control the environment, to conquer the desert (if the LA Basin can be deemed a desert at least in the sense of a blank slate awaiting modern industrial development). They foster and encourage most of all a participation in a culture of blind ambition. Without this or earthquakes, Los Angeles would not be LA. As someone with Responsibilities now, I hope to follow the ingenious among them who harness uncertainty, who participate in this blind ambition.


[i] Admittedly, in the twenty-first century environmental concerns have altered this outlook slightly, and some would argue have marked a shift in what California stands for.

Chris Black lives with his wife in Los Angeles. He is a former associate editor at Black Clock and wrote feature articles on rubber duck races, birds of prey, and other mountain topics for The Vail Trail weekly.