A few months more than four years ago, the very kind people -- they seemed way too kind at the time -- asked me to write for the earliest version of these now densely populated and lovely pages. I was uncertain, having not so long before told an audience at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books that I thought blogging wasn't writing ... that it was a more like talking.
I've learned my lesson (or not, you might be thinking now). This is writing (or not, you also might be thinking).
My first pieces for KCET tried to introduce the themes and point of view I intended to take in writing about where we are. Those pieces now lie somewhere in the deepest digital basements of KCET.org.
Perhaps I should reintroduce myself to you ... re-declare my bona fides ... even if you've been reading these pieces from time to time.
From Where We Are, August 2009 (with some corrections and extensions):
I'm probably known . . . although, perhaps not to you . . . as the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir." That's a book about a lot of things -- water, sin, carpentry, Catholics and Jews, land use policy, the Laws of the Indies, Lakewood, and a dead cocker spaniel. They seemed, when I wrote Holy Land, to be related.
That suburban memoir was more of a long, solitary conversation with myself than a book. Years long. Held morning and evening during my walk from my house to my office and from office to house, the predictability of each step eliding into each sentence. Eventually, that conversation turned public, because the back-and-forth of walking and self-talking was an argument, too . . . an argument with myself initially over the folly of staying here (here = my parents' house that became my house) and of believing . . . particularly of believing that so much ordinariness in my life and theirs and their neighbors would add up to anything.
Eventually, it became an argument about falling in love.
I was about to say something about "us" at this point, because the "falling in love" part seems to need it. But I stopped because I have a habit of referring to you and me collectively . . . naming us as Angeleños or throwing us together as "we" by the fourth of fifth paragraph of just about every essay I write, as if you and I were passengers on the same Metro bus and as if our being (metaphorically) together implied anything, particularly any obligation. You in your uncomfortable seat listening to your smart phone. Me in my uncomfortable seat thinking how the pyramid of Khufu might be taken apart, block by block, to reveal what it hides inside.
Well, now that's been said. (You might remember that I once told an audience that I thought blogging was a form of speech, not of writing. That got me in hot water. Someone else may remember from the dialog of Phaedrus that Socrates said writing was overrated. He valued speech.) Except I made about three dozen editorial changes in these 412 words, something you can't do in speech.
"We" remains an abstraction, despite my regard of the back of your head two rows in front of me on the bus, an abstraction equivalent to the abstraction that Los Angeles has become (has been made to become . . . and there are reasons for that worth writing about). The abstraction that Los Angeles is. But here is where imagination comes in, my imagination and, if I'm lucky, yours, too . . . and -- oh -- it's a moral imagination about which I'm talking.
So far today, a morning's walk across my bit of Thomas Jefferson's national grid. From township (thirty-six squares, each exactly one mile on each side) to section (each a square exactly 640 acres) to quarter section (160 acres) to a "forty" (forty acres . . . but never a mule) to the subdivision of house lots in Los Angeles (mostly but not universally a 5,000-square-foot rectangle).
My front yard is a fractal of Jefferson's imperial imagination at play on the empty white space of a continent-sized map of North America (the Jeffersonian grid certainly included Canada, might have been elastic enough for more of Mexico, too).
The grid is the same at every scale. Own a Los Angeles house lot; acquire the Jeffersonian dream of the West. And possess, some will tell you, "suburbia."
Capitalized, the word first appears in the 1890s as the proper name -- Suburbia -- for an imaginary place on the outskirts of London. Suburbs (a much older word) are on the edge of someplace else. (In Los Angeles, suburbs are the edges of suburbs.)
Suburbia is, however, a loaded word. It houses low-key disdain. Suburbia isn't about geography; it's about the limits of the imagination. It's not a word that I use. The word I use is home.
I write about suburban places. I write about Los Angeles. And the two have been roughly equivalent since the city's absurdly small central core became irrelevant to the city's self-definition in the late 1920s.
(Arguments . . . really good arguments . . . are being made by really good historians and geographers about the validity of this view. That interests me. Both the point of the arguments, and if there is a point in having the argument at all.)
"Where we are" always interests me, along with the back-and-forth conversation of a past and a present. (Neither of which Los Angeles has had much use for. We're always longing for the city that's yet to be.)
But my mood has darkened lately. Given a choice of pasts, we're reluctant to choose (maybe because we've chosen so badly before). Arguably (more arguments), no history offers any service to what we're becoming.
Pessimistic -- bracingly pessimistic -- Henry Adams (those Adamses) wondered almost exactly one hundred years ago what service history could perform. Or should perform.
I'm not a historian. I don't live in the City of Los Angeles. I don't drive. Reasonable qualifications for talking about we are.