Still Unsettled in the Promised Land Print E-mail

s l1600(Los Angeles Review June 1, 2023)

GENESIS • One hundred years ago, the most fearsome cultural critic in America was Edmund Wilson. Writing in 1931, Wilson noted in an essay that even though the Great Depression ravaged the country, “Americans still tend to move westward, and many drift southward toward the sun.” With economic displacement rampant, he thought our “westward expansion” had come to a “standstill.” Nowhere was this more tragically apparent than in San Diego, which he visited in 1930, the city where I’ve lived since 1982. With 150,000 people at the time, Wilson named it, inelegantly, “the jumping-off place.” What was it, he wondered, that magnetizes people to move here and feel suddenly unmoored? At first, the cause eluded him. But one consequence was clear: the suicide rate.

Before and up to the onset of the Great Depression, the number of self-inflicted deaths was the highest in the United States: “Between January, 1911, and January, 1927,” he reported, “over five hundred people have killed themselves here.” One reason: the “great many sick people,” also known as health pilgrims, who come to San Diego for “the cure.” In 1931, the number of ill—including rich invalids who stayed at the Hotel Del Coronado (the site of the 1959 Billy Wilder classic, Some Like It Hot) or in city sanitoria where consumptives received treatment—amounted to 24 percent of the city’s population, much, much higher than the nation’s 6 percent.

What does a penchant for suicide in an ostensible health paradise speak to? The simplest reason is, people mistake temperature for salvation of life’s problems. In Wilson’s essay, part of The American Earthquake, a collection about the economic shock of the 1920s and 1930s, he writes, “In the case of ‘ideational’ diseases like asthma—diseases which are also psychological—the sufferers have a tendency to keep moving away from places, under the illusion that they are leaving the disease behind.” In addition, they are “fleeing from something in their pasts they are ashamed of or something which would disgrace them in the eyes of their friends in the place where they previously lived.” That includes, he says, “settlers in San Diego who are actually wanted by the law.” In 1931 there was one murderer “who, in a beer-war, turned a machine-gun on some children.” San Diego—as Somerset Maugham said of Monaco, “a sunny place for shady people”—“has been a hideaway for gangsters in trouble elsewhere ever since Al Capone came” here, racing over the border in his bulletproof Cadillac to Tijuana’s Agua Caliente resort in 1928. Even as a stopover, this middle-class city is a pricey playground (high mortgages, higher rents, ocean views), sheltering, then and now, young women who’ve been deserted by husbands and lovers and harboring “sailors and naval officers who have had enough of the service.”

The prophetic Wilson understood that all this “motoring” to California is at odds with what happens when newcomers arrive and feel nervously unsettled. Getting to shores of Pacific Beach doesn’t cease movement; typically, the inertia remains and people can’t curb the momentum. Many newbies adopt the RV restlessness depicted in Nomadland with its decentralized Amazon “fulfillment centers” commodifying their unease. So much lateral movement in western space, from coastal palms to mountain pines, that the wanderer often meets a psychic wall. The quest turns inward—and destructive—particularly to those who are mentally ill.

In Wilson’s final paragraph, he details a few coroner’s reports and cites deaths of despair—gas asphyxiation, swallowed Lysol, hotel hanging: “Here our people, so long told to ‘go West’ to escape from ill health and poverty, maladjustment and industrial oppression, are discovering that, having come West, their problems and diseases remain and that the ocean bars further flight.”

Whatever is shadowing new arrivals—me included once—will not be covered by the carpets of blue sky and undramatic waves. The shadow is internal, stuck on the soul’s flypaper wherever we land. But let me be more precise. There are spots in the American West that to lasso and hogtie our attention overpromise themselves and like mirages present water for sand. Each of us, whether carpetbaggers or natives, plays many a hand in this chicanery.


WESTCOAST BOUND • Every morning in my home office, I devote myself to writing I’m never sure what will come out until it takes a shape and lights a passion in me. Then the pursuit becomes irrevocably compelling, and I have to pursue it, more than just be with it, but let it overtake me, like the blush of a complement. As I say, I’m never sure what’s going to land on the screen’s page or my cursive journal, and, even then, the struggle to make each sentence cohere with its neighbors means constant revision, an endless process that enacts and deepens the discipline. I think of the daily labor of writing as usually and seldom the same as yesterday. Ever a mystical craft, alluring and difficult, it’s enigmatically satisfying because of its ritual habituation. It’s less an art and more a doing, then doing it over, then, maybe, overdoing it. Saul Bellow has a fine way of putting it: “The main reason for rewriting is not to produce a smooth surface, but to discover the inner truth of your characters.” In this case, I’m trying to discover the inner truth of my character and its homelessness.

In the room next to mine, my partner, a former therapist, works in what she refashioned as her studio—drawing, collaging, water-coloring, Zooming with friends and artists, mostly in women-centered, make-and-share sessions. Retired, her days are absorbed with art. I’m still career-obsessed, pushing to get my work published. I’m fortunate—most of it is. She’s there and I’m here, our offices like little temples of self-worship. It took us decades to secure this equilibrium, and we share a kind of serenity about not having to go anywhere ever again: We feel our destiny brought us West, together and apart, during the same year but in separate vehicles, only to uncover a mutual ambivalence about the idea of home.

Before we arrived in the early 1980s, we shared core conflicts—alcohol-fueled spouses, hers in Wichita, Kansas, mine in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She divorced prior to coming while I waited until my ex and I arrived and settled in Encinitas. When I was married in Santa Fe, I was earning $3.35 an hour in a bookstore, which wouldn’t feed a family of four. Then, a good musician, I received a scholarship in music composition to the University of California San Diego. Both things—my empty bank account and my talent—brought me here. What I didn’t know, however, was how foolish it was to believe the relocation would keep my marriage from sliding into oblivion. Which it did . . . slide into oblivion. For which today I’m thankful in a way only the long-divorced know.

Once my ex and I unpacked our stuff in a coastal rental, our twin sons in their bunk beds, she demanded we split. I fought the demand but eventually caved in. Why? My therapist convinced me that her plan—all along—was to get rid of me, her husband, and be in California. I’m sure she sees it differently than I do, but this getting here while keeping the stealth under wraps was an act of desperation, which for her, I suspect, was in the family’s best interest. Which left me to ponder not only the deviousness of the break but why I couldn’t see her design all along, cruel or not. Now I get it, as selfish as this may sound. And the embarrassment? I was asleep; it took years for me to see that this failure was generative, a gateway, an initiation. I hated failing because it was the flipside of the promise coin I’d bought in Santa Fe and brought with. I’d been hithered across the desert like millions before me, pulled to wester—the strangest of verbs, summoning the dreamer or the fleer, the truck-laden Oakie with his piled-high furniture and clanging pots and pans, bound for glory in California’s pastures of plenty.

To wester also means to lose what you came with and never quite acquire that which you hoped would replace it. The test is, can you live with the failure yet not alienate the promise. That’s a bitch because what you left and what you didn’t get for coming here you suspect will play even more tricks on you once the next failure crosses your path.


NO FUCKING MERLOT • The 2004 movie Sideways opens with a landlord knocking on a renter’s door. Inside is Miles (Paul Giamatti) who needs to move his car so the roofing trucks can get close to the building and work. Next frame says Saturday, then a shot of the low-rise, two-story Sea Crest apartments, mirrored buildings and a stairway between to the second floor. In his robe Miles runs down the stairs to move his car; the next frame says San Diego, California. As if to say, this is where the nightmare of his life—of any riffraff’s life—has already begun and here can only get worse. The score burbles a bit of Italian circus music played without enthusiasm like a cruise-ship dance band. Miles is a schlub: his place is a mess, he’s overslept, he dawdles on the toilet, he lies to his best friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), phoning him from his apartment that he’s late because he’s stuck in traffic—not true: He soon motors onto a light-trafficked, Saturday morning freeway. (One filmic deception in this dorky romance is that Miles’s actual apartment is not in “real life” San Diego. It was filmed in Goleta, California, just above Santa Barbara. The irony is apropos of this city’s placelessness but only to geeky noticers like me.)

Visiting his mother, he lifts a grand in cash from her stash. Next, we learn that Miles is a wine fanatic and an unpublished novelist. Rejected, he hits rock bottom. In Rex Pickett’s impudent novel, on which the film is based, the geography is clear from the opening line: “I desperately needed to get out of L.A.” Moving the location down the coast for the film is a sideways twist of the knife, which is already gut-stuck in this tale of two knuckleheads, Southern California prime-cuts.

Jack is getting married in a week and the movie becomes a last road trip to Wine Country. The jaunt revolves around lots of drinking and eventual intercourse, each guy paired with an intelligent, independent woman. The film rolls on in its comic yet touching will-they-ever-grow-up slippage, idling on Miles, a divorced, self-loathing depressive, and Jack, his actor pal, among the smoothest of Lotharios, the whole romp ripening like Pinot grapes into cinematic vintage.

What jars me watching Sideways again is its backstory: Miles is divorced from a woman his mother says was the “best thing that ever happened” to him. The ex-wife left him for unspecified reasons; doing well now in Oxnard, she’s getting remarried. Miles, however, is going nowhere, except, it seems, to have disappeared into the irredeemable San Diego, his bitterness unchecked. Midmovie, the bad news is delivered by his literary agent (a potential sale fell through), and he chugs a tasting room’s spit bucket. It’s easy to see that his passion as a wine connoisseur accounts for his alcoholism, not his hopelessness. He’s a wine junkie and a self-described “loser” who can’t put the halves together. For me, with the filmmaker situating the tale in San Diego (Chamber of Commerce-christened, “America’s Finest City”) hints strongly that Miles’s narcissism is emblematic of the adolescent, male, déclassé, south-of-LA Southern Californian, a personal grossness of which only a loyal, loving woman can scrub him clean. One of the dopier tropes of the Hollywood chick-flick-cum-bromance!

Alas, I do take this dramedy too seriously. Why is complicated. It reminds me, first, of other hip takeoffs on San Diego’s self-manufactured sensibility: the drollery of “Simon and Simon,” the feelgood noir of “Veronica Mars,” and the lamebrained yuk-a-thon of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. And then there’s that title—Sideways—in which I hear a partial reenactment of Edmund Wilson’s “jumping-off place.” Something’s not quite right with either the reality of living here or the image it provokes, which, for me, shares a common ancestor. Besides, promises made to the unhealthy and the unfulfilled can turn ugly. My photographic news id recalls Heaven’s Gate, the “phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce or pudding and washed down with vodka” suicidal potion thirty-nine souls ingested, in 1997, exiting their brainwashed bodies in Rancho Santa Fe, twenty-five miles north, through the eucalyptus groves, from San Diego.

Selling the salubrious life in San Diego has unseen consequences especially when a person like Miles whose self-regard withers and teeters near a Final Exit and then, voilà, our humbled hero is saved by an availably forgiving woman who, having westered as well, may feel he’s as good as it gets.


TACO TRUCK BLUES • Having been in San Diego for forty years, I’m beginning to latch two things together about what happened after I got here: 1) I had to escape the mindset I carried with me before a truer life matched to my ambition could begin and 2) I had to awaken to the forces of (self) deception and (cultural) seduction, the grocery-store tabloid of a sun-drenched Tomorrowland (Tech Hub! Mind/Body Fusion! Beach Yoga!) that none of us can fully reject.

All these years, I’m been trying to grok an enigma: I know many San Diego artists and writers who complain aesthetically, financially, that the city we idealized nurtures little of the culture we believed it should have. The surprising part of the enigma is that this sensibility exists not only with new arrivals but also with natives. We eventually learn that locals have little interest, commercial or otherwise, in supporting (except Darlene Shiley, the ultra-rich widow of inventor Donald Shiley, who seems to fund every PBS series known to man) the art, writing, theater, music, and intellectual pursuits, the home-bent creative class produces.

Sure, in San Diego there’s the Old Globe theater, and the startup innovators, and the punk/post-punk/no-punk scenes, and the outdoor Rady Shell for the symphony, summer-into-fall, and August’s sandcastle competition in Imperial Beach, and Comic-Con, plus a few generations of dazzling landscape painters. (One bizarre irony: the city couldn’t keep its NFL team. It, too, like so many of the underappreciated, left for LA.) Of course, there are exceptions but, for the most part, San Diego culture is physical; its merit in the arts limps behind, a distant second. That physicality is tilted to consumption and the beach: skateboards, fire rings, very big fish that do splashy tricks in amusement parks, sand-toed volleyball, craft beer, luncherias, sailors wobbling up the Gaslamp Quarter, and untroubled weather. I now know how much the city is codependent, importing its cultural heft, unlike its opposite, Los Angeles, which exports its long history—and special genius for—film and TV production as well as literary substance: Matthew Specktor’s Always Crashing in the Same Car illuminates that substance, both the real and the fake tinsel, marvelously. To have a crack at such big-tent fame means San Diego artists must move away from here, ironically, to eventually matter here.

Leaving New Mexico, I believed that going all the way west would mean I’d have a better shot at “success” as an artist. This is true, partially. I did find my calling, even if it was later in life. In fact, I may have found it anywhere because a writer’s work-life is closer to solitary penance than muse-led or place-centric aspiration. But something far more dire about where I live exists “under the perfect sun,” in Mike Davis’s perfect phrase.

When I read Wilson’s reportage from the early 1930s, I was shocked that the promise had preceded me, fifty years prior; it was nothing new. The dreamiest dreams are destined to be foiled. Natives and newcomers often find this locale stultifying, over-parental, complacent, insentient. A goodly percentage feel stuck, out of options. Indeed, the option of escape has run its course and needs to show rewards. A few malcontents kill themselves, especially if they go unnoticed by their addled buddies. Would this be my fate—escape or die!—I’ve often wondered? The truth is, I’m exhausted trying to feel at home “in the far corner of America,” in Richard Louv’s phrase, another SoCal expatriate. My tank overfull, I couldn’t go any further until I put my querulousness into an essay, this essay.

I still clash with the idea that San Diego lacks a nativist identity, cultural and historical. Is it (a microcosm of) America? Northern Mexico? East Asia? The Bear Flag Republic, the politically progressive recalcitrant, soon to secede? The conflict of place keeps the ironies mounting, for example, that the very attraction of a home veils its opposite and sooner than later the opposite manifests itself out of the repressed shadows. That grand about-face is what I’m feeling.

Life compels us to pull up stakes and move on—whether here to elsewhere or elsewhere to here—while life, protecting its gains, often insists we stay put, settle for the sedentary life and its small gains, and rest, repose. In my case, I came to San Diego to study music composition, a dream that died with my divorce. My other love, writing prose (journalism and memoir, complementary forms), galvanized me, an obsession that’s won out. Maybe it’s the obsession of the writing life that depresses me, a kind of monastic quiet within an amplified, collective YouTube culture. Deep down, some days I feel my actual life is still the imagined life I wanted, and have not achieved, will never achieve, because it now feels that someone else, not me, has lived it. This might be true for every artist who feels she can never match the dream of making it because the culture she thought would recognize her no longer cares or never did.


EXODUS • The artist John Baldessari, who died in 2020, was born in 1933, in National City, California, an industrial, working-class suburb that borders the south San Diego neighborhoods of Encanto, Skyline, and Paradise Hills. He taught at community colleges, was well-liked, and pursued the shock of the new, movements with manifestoes, in the 1960s, many of which were trapped, as the critic Barry Schwabsky wrote, “between expressionist agony and academic restraint.” A gentle giant at 6’ 7”, he stayed in National City and searched for venues to show his work. He got so tired of rejection, he, like lots of talented locals, left his “invisible” hometown for Los Angeles at thirty-seven. We read a lot about him these days because, post-death, art elites are finally, truly, prizing his work, one of the nimblest practitioners of Conceptualism, the postmodern irreverence that art can be about art, for and against.

A trickster in the tradition of the Dadaists—put a frame around anything or stick an object in a museum and, set apart, voilà, it’s an objet d’art—Baldessari made a series of images, combining banal snapshots, often over- or underdeveloped, with a mundane comment, in Calvin Tomkins’s phrase, “photography-based art-about-art.” He drove around National City and took Polaroids of the ordinary: local stores, billboards, street scenes. He attached witty titles like Econ-o-Wash, 14th and Highland to one shot or, to a whole series of snaps, The Backs of All the Trucks Passed While Driving from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, Calif., Sunday 20 Jan. 63. These pieces noticed the unsightliness of the everyday with a kind of eventless curiosity. He dubbed one set of such photo-texts, “Pure Beauty.” (His standard flippant response: “Truth is beautiful, no matter how ugly it is.”) As for his product, he conceptualized an “art” that would take minimal effort to produce—stretch a canvas, glom on via photo-emulsion a photograph, hire a trained sign painter to letter the title on the lower half of the canvas. The titles were half the fun: “Is this art?” or “I will not make any more boring art.” He bent-if-not-broke our expectations about fine art as “labor-intensive”—the sedulous genius, like Rembrandt, whose work is never finished, only abandoned. Instead, Baldessari emphasized the DIY view that the very specialness of the found and the accidental, the wry and the plain, had value if only to its facetious creator.

Developing this anti-aesthetic in the late 1950s, early 1960s, Baldessari pitched local galleries and was laughed out. As object and muse, National City, famous for its “Mile of Cars,” not its licentious spirit, was an oxymoron—still is. Better put, it’s a place that isn’t quite “here” or “there,” because of its banality, its obviousness, yet is seen, recorded, and interpreted by the artist. If anywhere, the unnoticeable is in-between, its identity desultory, its location ever near-to. In the environs of San Diego, National City is near-to but not the beach; it’s near-to but not downtown; it’s near-to but not the Navy-anchored bay; it’s near-to but not the border with Mexico. It’s close by the jewels of Balboa Park, the coastal surf funk, fresh seafood restaurants, harbor cruises, the Vietnamese strip malls—all that just a short drive away, provided, these days, you can find parking. National City is set apart but so is any other mundane landmark: Baldessari’s point.

Nothing stirring locally, Baldessari sought action in the mecca to the north, artists and art-investors in LA, the historical ground of the California Impressionists and Pop Art formalists like Ed Ruscha. Baldessari I-5’ed himself to north and studied at the Otis Art Institute (1957-1959), after which he returned to National City and taught classes. (Famously, he had a degree not in studio art but in art education and was an inspiring teacher. Ever the self-mocking truthteller, he said, “I didn’t even know who Matisse or Picasso were when I went to college.”) In the 1960s, he would drive to LA once a month to view exhibits (nothing in San Diego stirred him), among them a Duchamp retrospective in Pasadena as well as Andy Warhol’s first one-person show of Campbell’s Soup Cans at the Ferus Gallery near the Sunset Strip. After Baldessari fashioned the photo-text images, David Antin, of the newly staffed Fine Arts Department at UC San Diego, arranged for a show—where else but the very hip Molly Barnes Gallery in LA. Antin said later that “There was a deadpan comedy about those literal pictures of a desperately uninteresting town [National City]—the image of provincialism as a front for considerable intelligence and wit.”

Which, because of such praise, invites the question: How much can a desperately sad and plain-Jane hometown absorb one’s artistic interest? Apparently, quite a lot.

Though only a handful of works he did before 1968 attracted buyers, Baldessari felt the photo-text pieces captured his nice-guy/bad-boy sensibility. Memorializing his self-definition was an epiphany: For a commemorative performance piece, he decided to burn everything (123 pieces) he’d done prior to 1966, except the photo-text images. He called the conflagration the Cremation Project and, in its honor, had the following statement notarized: “[A]ll works of art done by the undersigned [J.B.] between May 1953 and March 1966 in his possession as of July 24, 1970 were cremated on July 24, 1970 in San Diego, California.” The sole commonality these “works of art” had was they never sold. To bury them, respectfully, he searched for a local mortuary who might burn the paintings; most said no until one finally agreed but only after hours. Of the ashes left, he had them baked into “cookies” and put into a jar: Another work of art, exiled from itself, but still, for sale.

Post-blaze, Baldessari worried he’d never get out of National City. He was married with two kids; he adored teaching and his students but despaired—not even the Cremation Project put him on the map or into the discussion. Years later, in 1996 and lionized by contemporary critics and collectors, he recalled his “fond frustration” with San Diego as a place he knew he had to leave: “There should be more than one newspaper in the town,” he said. “There should be more than one or two art critics. That’s just for openers. The same things still remain twenty-plus years after I left San Diego. Why? Everything else has grown. I don’t get it.”

In 1970, he took a job at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, a half-hour northeast of Los Angeles, the Disney-funded school where animators and artists of all stripes study. There, he mentored many artists (the collagist David Salle was one) who diverged from Baldessari’s conceptualism but did relish his love of the double-take, the lie that tells the truth. Within a year of relocating to Santa Monica, he had his first New York exhibition. (Alas, none of those works sold either, so he really must be a genius!) In time, artists and critics and the fickle public cottoned-to his experimentation, perhaps, got the joke, often on them. Which funny or not still posed a fundamental question: Exactly what might art be other than what it had always been?


THE WAY OUT IS THE WAY BACK • In 2007, to that fundamental question, the market dug deep in its pockets and produced an answer. Baldessari’s “Quality Material,” a canvas from his National City period, dated 1967-68, on which he printed this text (quality material – – – close inspection – – good workmanship. all combined in an effort to give you a perfect painting) sold at Christie’s for $4.4 million. Today, it’s worth double that.

What a minute. How’s that possible? Baldessari’s drive-by photos of corner gas stations, wry observations “stating the obvious”—a picture of a man standing in front of the trunk of a palm so that the palm seems to grow out of the man’s head, titled “Wrong”—were, by the 2000s, hanging in cutting-edge galleries and echoey art museums, bought at auction and displayed in the Park Avenue apartments of the hedge-fund horde. Who was it that suddenly found value in his pieces? Hard to say. Guessing how the market works is pure divination. Still, once the critical mob noted that Baldessari owed context and inspiration to the backwater of National City, well, that assessment kickstarted an awakening, which said, there was a plan in place, unbeknownst to every interest, including the artist, all along.

So such becomes his legacy. His hometown—and much less his LA getaway—shaped his creed that the blander the subject matter, the more the artist’s capture of that blandness startles us. Eventually, the idea is institutionalized: What in the present is not art and misunderstood may be art only the future lets us get and, thus, may be worth an investment. I find this intriguing, for it elevates the artist to seek marginalization as a rite of passage. In his own way, Baldessari had to self-marginalize his anarchic vision of National City, feel a failure for doing so, burn a good deal of the work he was right few cared for (maybe even him), and leave his surroundings for the moneyed and academic opportunities in the artsy locus 100 miles north. There, he manifested recognition, in a sense, agenting his own reception. I wonder whether this self-representation, the hyper-individualizing of the artist as brand from the get-go (think Jeff Koons, Thomas Kinkade), wasn’t Baldessari’s discovery, which nowadays is de rigueur for the “influencer.”

Perhaps this life-art mirror, indebted to Duchamp and John Cage, rewired Baldessari as well, in the 1960s and throughout his career. As art critic Hugh Davies has written, National City is “no longer an artistic wilderness and certainly [the artist has become] a prophet in his own land.” Indeed, his recording his hometown’s uneventuality and abandoning it for fame and fortune elsewhere is a grand paradox. And yet the grandness congeals only after his death when we see that the way out of National City is also the way back. To redefine home as exile means having both and neither.


TESTAMENT • What brought me here has to be, in part, genetic. I wouldn’t call it my “identity,” a word whose cast these days combines ancestor worship with ethnic or racial trauma. It’s better termed the “boomer” syndrome—not a generational thing but the rush to go somewhere new for a piece of the action, Forty-Niner-style. My mother’s grandfather, one of the Swedish Risberg brothers, came to America on a pretext: to labor in the Iron Ore range of northern Minnesota and remit his earnings home to sponsor another brother’s voyage. The most appealing reason to come to America was to avoid Sweden’s compulsory military draft, an inspiration to me a hundred years later when I feigned a psychiatric illness to keep my ass from “serving” in Vietnam. Another great grandfather became a photographer in Rockford, Illinois, built a thriving practice, and mail-ordered his bride. He took advantage of his Whiteness, alas, unwittingly. To be an American was for him pre-figured, a prerogative the Euro-male treasures and a reality easier for him to achieve than for swarthier emigrants, including those plundered from Africa.

Similarly, there was a great, great uncle, an itinerant painter in Sweden who did portraiture of the gentry. Hearing of a well-off class in America, he stole onto a freighter, steamed through the St. Lawrence Seaway, hopped trains to Chicago, and there plied his trade. Savvy, he dropped the Nordic accent as quickly as he could. He loved adventure, prized serendipity. I admire the bravery of those Swedes who jettisoned their pasts and went a-roving, which, despite the hardships, imbued future generations with this itch to resettle.

Before I was born, my mother played her one trump card. If my father, her suitor, promised never to move more than one state away from her mother in Illinois, ninety miles west of Chicago, she’d marry him. He signed on. But after the war, my dad, docking in San Francisco, loved that city, associated it with the ecstatic V-J day, and hoped to start a family there. Every time that Tony Bennett heartbreaker came on the radio, he misted over. But he’d given his word; he careered as a marketer of paper products in a series of riverside paper mills in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Missouri, a day’s drive from his wife’s family. He never said he resented it. But he didn’t have to. The despair was palpable. I figured out later why he golfed (then napped) every Saturday, away from managing three unruly sons, and why he watched Rat Pack/detective serials on TV every night. He was in the doldrums; fatherhood and a sales job engendered existential fatigue. He told me only once about his nervy youth, a devoted night student at the Art Institute of Chicago until the economy, the draft, and the attack on Pearl Harbor derailed his plans to be an artist, a fate far different from the golden choices I used to chart my music/literary path.

My father’s sadness did not revisit me, and I’m lucky to have been ejected from a loveless marriage and landed in Suzanna an enduring partner. Still, there’s a major incongruity. Until my ex and I and the kids went all the way West, I didn’t know how deeply I hated our bondage—both she and I blamed the other for being tar-ball stuck. Lurking inside me like a pilot light, however, was a strain of my Swedish family’s genes, ready to spark the starter of my artistic life. Thus, the San Diego move meant an end and a beginning. And, mirabile dictu, that beginning is still on. I’m sure I’m happier than I would have been had I never driven past those great rust-colored boulders, precariously perched along the twisty grade, up and out of the Anza-Borrego Desert, between the below-sea-level irrigated paradise of the Imperial Valley and the cooling fog of the sand-cliff coast, where I exchanged one life that didn’t work for one that did, if only to reseed the dismay with which I’d arrived.