Love and Sensitivity

Things I Knew Nothing About (Part 3)

The following is the third and final part in a list of things I knew nothing about before owning a home. Pretty much all of them are profound joys. But the little italicized blurb that began the first part of this whole thing was not completely accurate: Some of these things-I-knew-nothing-about, I wasn’t really oblivious to. I was a different person before. Some of these things I had inklings of but only as vague impressions, like childhood truisms yet to be fully articulated and realized. Now, though, even if I can only express them as a list of ordinary things (as sketchy pronouns and prepositional phrases), they are now, at least to me, closer to full realizations.

51. Bougainvillea; 52. Karats; 53. Reclaimed vs. Sustainable; 54. The DIY Network; 55. Contractors;

56. Mexican Fan Palms
I have discovered that the palm trees in front of my house make a noise, and I have heard fate’s very real whisper. In the middle of a winter night, when even a slight breeze makes the tall trunks bend and sway and the fronds rustle, it sounds like a nearby stream. Even if the night is completely still, if I stand in my driveway with my eyes closed and listen, it’s like I’m not in the city at all, but far from it. But the stream I hear is the ghost of the Los Angeles River, winding through LA as it no longer exists, before the river was sealed in concrete, when the mountains flooded down into the ocean.

LA concrete is a lead blanket over now-foreign climates, but the palm trees reach from beneath the sidewalk up into the night sky and into my imagination. The former tributaries of the LA basin run through this empty plane, conjured in the space between the concrete and the palm fronds high above us, in the form of expectation. Living here, in this low-rising sprawl, I don’t have to think about this tamed ancient climate, and others before me have so overpowered the environment that Angelenos are left to focus ambitiously on their expectations, in the same way men of the early twentieth century built the skyscrapers and the interstates.

If you might visit, or are living in, or have been to, or left, or have ever imagined Los Angeles, then you know what I mean. The layers become obvious. The idea is everywhere. Lots of people have said it better than me. In his book Landscapes of Desire, William McClung says that, “LA is a palimpsest of [intended and envisioned alternative cities]…” But if past and present are both here in the asphalt and buildings, and if we all believe anything is possible in this Hollywood culture at the end of the world, isn’t the inevitable here, too, ready to be written over all of it, the same way the interstate rolls north and south over what might as well be millennia? The same way the rustling fronds carry me into a future with Lex.

57. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown”; 58. Refinancing; 59. Dichotomy Paradox; 60. “We”; 61. Registries; 62. Embossing; 63. Equity;

64. Strawberry Trees
When Lex and I got home from a two-week vacation in the summer, the speedy return to routine was shocking, yet invigorating, like a cold plunge. Most notably, there is always more yard work, and I got on everything that had been neglected while we were away. Both my sister and a hired house-sitter had taken turns watching over the house and the cat, but making a list of things-to-do for house-sitters is the last thing on your mind when packing for a trip, and the more you add (like the locations and corresponding watering cycles of each plant outside and in) the more obnoxious and tyrannical the note sounds. So I can’t possibly expect them to understand everything that comprises Lex and my weekly rituals of upkeep. Such a letter should only be left to the greatest of thinkers. Instead I write as much as I can without sounding maniacal and overbearing—though I’m sure I do. Yet when we returned the lawn still needed mowing and desperate weeding, the back lawn was almost completely brown in some spots and dead in others, and most of the plants along the perimeter of the yard needed a good once-over with the old garden hose.

The power had gone out sometime during our absence and, though we couldn’t know how long the sprinklers had been off, the lawn of regularly heavy crab grass (#65) was now a patch of brittle brown blades. The point being that I never realized how much watering we were actually doing. So much that to only be gone two weeks was enough to push things to the brink of death. How much time am I really spending out there in the morning, in my underwear, scratching my belly, holding the hose as it releases a limpid shower of water down onto the plants? The image is straight out of a fifties sitcom or The Simpsons, definitely suburban. This whole ambitious dream is all about the goddamn yard; it’s about the difference between gardening and landscaping (#66). It’s about the time you spend (and need to spend, and want to spend) cultivating your own kingdom.

Lex and I came home to see that the house-sitter had trimmed the rose bushes out front and placed bouquets around our house. Seeing the roses was a delight and also a relief—the bushes are rough and require constant trimming, and there are five of them. One of them produces yellow roses; one has pink roses; two white; but the other, with the red roses, produces a fragrance that makes me finally understand all the fuss and idioms about roses, and, in some small way, consider Divine Creation in my own yard. The color of the red rose reminds me of an image I had only before seen on Hallmark cards: a prism of light shining through a drop of water as it slides down the petal.

So this kind woman trimmed the roses for us (because if you wait too long and let the flowers die on the stem, the bushes get unwieldy. The thorns will tear you to shreds), and she put them in vases around the house, so we came home to big roses everywhere. Now, at least in season, we almost always have roses culled from our own yard. They are not free roses but products of vigilance and a little manual labor, and these are the sweetest smelling roses.

67. Alpine Street; 68. Escrow; 69. Envelope Liners; 70. Steam Dryers; 71. Enclosures;

72. Passion
During the holidays there are commercials on television and on the sides of buses telling moderate-temperature-touting Angelinos to come to Universal Studios where we can play in some snow. I imagine the city kids digging deep into their closets and pulling on snow pants and boots and down-jackets with mittens tied to the sleeves, then their parents driving them and watching them as they roll in the snow, packing it into snowmen and snowballs. These city kids think the snow is real snow (real in the sense that it fell from the sky), and they enjoy it like it’s real snow, and therefore it is real, just like the desert below the concrete.

Maybe you’re already on your way there, either as the one driving or as the one with mittens. If you’re like the new me, you’ll drive up the 101, taking up your part of the highway and going fast because the space below your tires is replaced a split second later by another anonymous hunk of metal. This is all at sixty-five miles per hour, and the highway is almost never empty; this trading of spaces feels like it could only end in catastrophe. But it doesn’t; it’s just happening really fast, and you go on anyway. In fact, I’m already heading to Universal Studios to play in the snow, even though the attraction is still however many months away.

So you’re already in the middle of a long line to get off the highway at the right exit, and even when you do arrive at the theme park there’s still another line, and eventually you’ll get through and watch the children play around in the snow, maybe pack and throw a snowball yourself, or show them how to stack snow on top of snow to make a snowman, like you did as a child before you lived in this city, before you pondered and worried about the difference between what’s possible and what’s inevitable.

After playing in the fake snow you’ll get back in your car and back on the highway, and you’ll already be on your way to play in the fake snow again a year later, because the snow is not dependent on any actual omnipotent unpredictable weather system. You trust they’ve got that danger taken care of, and you know the tameness of the desert is just there under the concrete. It doesn’t sound like that bad a future, and, in fact, of all the possibilities, it is the one I had always had my sights on. The only bad thing is, maybe I don’t want to know these things.

73. Japanese Honeysuckle; 74. Decomposed Granite; 75. 100 vs. 200-amp breakers;

76. Handiwork
Any homeowner will tell you that “the work is never finished.” But when we do have extra time before dinner, we make dessert for after dinner. Sometimes we have chocolate chip cookies with a slight hint of caramel because Lex uses browned butter (#77), which is tricky to make because it’s easy to burn the butter if you don’t notice the faint nutty smell and golden color and take it off the heat right away. Like most recipes from Cooks Illustrated, this one takes some practice and may never be perfected. Fortunately, most of the most important things in life are never-ending like this.

78. 4Bar Envelopes; 79. Deer Grass

80. Cake Domes
Lex went to work the very next day after we got back from vacation, but I needed time for transition, and my job was to find a job (more specifically: to find a purpose). I spent days in our house, along with Lex on the weekends, fixing up the lawn and gardens, paying bills and taking care of mortgage paperwork, mowing without the slightest feeling of accomplishment (even while listening to Bob Marley), getting reacquainted with our bed, letting the television gradually suck us back in, finishing books started and half-read on vacation, trashing old food from the fridge, buying new food including all the old staples like milk, eggs, and cheese, and I got back to worrying about job-hunting, worrying about writing, brainstorming aimlessly, without any pattern or schedule, but gradually feeling more at home, though never more so than when I saw our roses adorning the coffee table (which also happens to be the moment I first walked through the door). Maybe it isn’t pride that actually defines my feeling of this home. What feels different about this place, compared to all the others I have lived in, is the feeling of responsibility.

And larger responsibility leads to larger investment and to a kind of pride not unlike how you felt upon receiving your first ever paycheck, except the reward is not exactly monetary. This kind of pride isn’t linked to money or ambition and the investment is emotional. The rose bushes were inherited anyway, but I can identify the pride of the person who planted the bushes. Similarly, even after I move out of this house, I’ll still be proud of the blooming spiral succulents and aloe, and even of the Mexican Fan Palms. If twenty years after that I drive by and the aloe and rose bushes are still there (the trees certainly should be) it will be as if I left part of myself there in order to help this place survive, as if the wood and paint and garden introduced itself to me and accepted me at one time.

Coming home from vacation I thought I’d feel at home again when the plane flew into Los Angeles, even if all I could see from the window were lights blurred beneath a layer of fog. I thought LAX would feel like home, with its inimitable panorama and web-like layout and its air smelling like nothing except perhaps tepid sunshine or the ocean.

However, even after we’d exited the terminal and crammed into a Prius cab, I still had no sensation of home, and the empty late-night eastbound 105 (#81) didn’t give it to me, even though it feels like the movie-perfect scene of tranquility: the protagonist leaving the bustling climax and driving casually towards resolution and the end credits. Maybe, I wondered, after we’d transferred freeways and come to my exit, would I get a sensation of home? I had once felt that way in a cab when I lived in New York, when we passed a particular chain-link fence a few blocks away from my apartment.

The chain-link fence or the teardrop of water sliding down the petal of a red rose are visual cues that I’m home, like a baby who thinks in images highlighted with other senses, like the scent of the red roses or of Lex’s soap. But home is also Lex on our first vacation a few years ago when she felt sick and didn’t leave our hotel room until late in the second day, or the lean-to we built out of palm fronds one day on the beach. Home is in a picture of us standing in front of our new home, even before we’d put a fresh coat of red paint on the then weathered-looking front door; I’m in shorts and Lex is in a tank top, squinting slightly to the west towards the Hollywood Sign (#82) and the ocean, and there is a suitcase next to us (which really belongs to her brother, who is taking the picture), and we are on the verge of moving through the font door behind us.

83. Wooden Toys
While on vacation I dreamt of a house; a two-story one with a large lawn rolling down about thirty feet to a blue lake. The landscaping looked heavily groomed but tranquil, and nothing surrounded the lake except for this perfect lush, green grass. In the dream, without telling Lex, I sold our house on the palm-tree-lined street. To my horror, when we arrived at the new house on the lake and went inside, it revealed itself to be a run-down building. Cobwebs stretched across every corner, the furniture was rotting, wires and stains muddied the walls like a haunted house in some low-budget movie. The kitchen counters and cabinets teetered on rusty screws, and all the empty spaces for appliances had burnt, black spots on the walls were cords had once been. Outside, now, was even worse. There was still grass, but the lake had become a shallow pond, and a cloister of large and barren concrete buildings had risen up just next door.

But those were not the worst things about this house. Where there should have been flowers and jasmine and vegetable gardens and aloe there was only dead grass and dusty holes the size of disappeared five-gallon plants (#84). It was too late to move back into our old home, so I told Lex we should return just to take what we could of the furniture and everything else that was ours. Our only hope to start over in this place—aside from repainting the walls—was to go back to our old place with the palm trees and dig up the agave, the bougainvillea, the succulents, the rose bushes, the honeysuckle, and the day lilies and pack them all into a truck. Then we would re-plant and water and feed them in order to fill the holes and dead spots, so I could eventually make it up to her.

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.