Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Down and Out in Santa Clarita

Or: How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Part Four

I had always been afraid of Los Angeles. Partly for the same reason I'm afraid of every big city. I don't like driving in cities. The only car accident I've ever been in happened on the freeway in Boston - I was heading out to my ex-wife's place to help her move (or, more correctly, to help with her dogs during the move, because they had been my dogs, long story) and was having a difficult time merging on the freeway. Trying to get over to a left exit lane going over a bridge, I merged into an SUV - or, more to the point, they came up on my blind spot while my turn indicator was blinking - on my left side. The upshot is that the insurance paid for me to have the damage fixed and a rental car. Even though fixing the damage only took two days I kept the rental car for a week and had my transmission replaced. And wouldn't you know the car ran another 80-odd thousand miles with a new transmission, before finally coming to its final resting place on the side of the freeway in Holyoke, MA, right outside the mall.

People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is a demonstrably true statement. This is especially true if you are from out of town and are not quite sure where your exit is, or whether the exit is going to be on the right or left hand lane of a six lane road, or whether the lane you get into in anticipation of your turn will become an exit-only lane before you reach your exit.

I hate driving in San Francisco for similar although not quite identical reasons. It's not the hills I mind so much - a few of them can be nerve-wracking, but as long as you don't have to try to park, it's not terrible. The problem is the size of the roads. Most of San Francisco is tightly packed in a way comparable to downtown Boston. Just try to get anywhere around the banking district during daytime hours. The western part of the city is more laid back, but the downtown is forbiddingly dense. So even though Los Angeles seems like it should be far more relaxed in terms of spacing and traffic density, again, where you actually want to go is crowded and difficult to navigate. You can cruise around Northridge or Sylmar to your hearts content, but if you get behind the wheel of a car in Burbank or Hollywood, you might as well bid a fond adieu to your peace of mind.

Despite our best efforts, we found ourselves sucked into Los Angeles. After we finally found an apartment - or rather, a room in a house in the north Valley with two other art students, which is precisely the situation we had hoped to avoid - it was necessary to venture forth into the metropolis in order to acquire supplies. Which meant, in practice, we went to Ikea every day for a full week. Not only did we go to the Ikea in Burbank multiple times, but we even drove out to Covina, on a Friday afternoon. There was a mattress sale, but the mattress we wanted was sold out at the Burbank store, so we drove out to the store that did have it. On the way we listened to a lot of Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

She said she didn't know there was so much Frankie Goes to Hollywood in the world. But it seemed appropriate.

Two days before my birthday we had dinner in the Chevys opposite the Ikea in Burbank. It was surprisingly tasty. She ordered a margarita and enjoyed it immensely.

On my own, during the days she was in class, I ventured on my own into Hollywood, to see the Amoeba.

I ended up going back to Amoebas a few times as the visit wore on. It's bigger, I believe, than the San Francisco store, although at a certain point the difference becomes academic. Even multiple-hour visits over multiple days didn't give me enough time to do anything resembling a systematic look, although I was lucky enough to find a pile of bargains and a few things I'd been looking after for quite a while. I picked up this for an exorbitant price, but about as much as I would have paid for import shipping from the UK in any event. Found some Red Krayola. The aforementioned Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Some Darkthrone. An unopened copy of Jellyfish's Bellybutton for $5, which I hadn't heard in well over a decade. She did not care for the Jellyfish. I, however, enjoyed the Jellyfish more than the new New Pornographers, which I also purchased, relatively cheap from the used bin. I need to listen some more, but it's no Twin Cinema.

There's a Jack in the Box across the street from Amoeba and catty-corner from the CNN building that has an unlocked restroom, out of the line of sight of the cashiers. Amoeba is very confident in their "no public restroom" policy, so I imagine we weren't the only ones to take advantage of the foolhardy restroom policy of the Hollywood Jack in the Box.

As the weeks wore on we grew increasingly tired. The bloom had long ago faded off the romance of this particular trip. She was close to being settled in, ensconced in bother her studio and her apartment. We ate at Lucille's Smokehouse Bar-B-Que on my birthday. It was good.

Next: Homecoming

Monday, October 13, 2014

Down and Out in Santa Clarita

Or: How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Part Three

The problem with much of Southern California is that almost everyone in Southern California believes that Southern California is the best place to live in the entire world.

I grew up in California, so I suppose you can call me a California partisan. California public schools do a great job of indoctrinating each student into the belief that there is no place in the world quite as great. I can still remember most of the words to the songs in my fourth grade pageant, the gist of which were that 1) America was the best country in the world, and 2) California was the best part of America because California was the westernmost point in the continental United State.
There will always be a little bit of the west /
There will always be a little bit of the west /
There will always be a little bit of the west /
To be won /
To be won.
(Looking online, I see that they are still making students perform How the West Was Really Won, despite the fact that it is - in hindsight - quite offensive in every conceivable way short of having fourth graders playact a lynching on stage. But I see it is mainly performed in religious schools, which is hilarious. America is indeed the land supreme.)

California is a wonderful place, but not all parts of California are equally wonderful. There are large swathes of the state that should be cordoned off from human habitation, and the area immediately surrounding Palm Springs is one of these areas.

My aunt and uncle live in Palm Desert. They live in a very nice gated community, with a swimming pool and multiple guest suites offered for our convenience. If you look at a map you will notice that Palm Desert is roughly 150 miles from Santa Clarita. So why were we in Palm Desert? Because we couldn't afford to stay indefinitely at a hotel in Santa Clarita, and Palm Desert was close family with a bed we could borrow. (We did ultimately end up spending a lot of time in hotel rooms as well, do not worry.)

My aunt and uncle own an air conditioning business. As you can imagine, they do pretty well in the middle of the desert. It's a great line to be in. The way the desert works is that you spend all day in air conditioned houses and businesses, and then jump into air conditioned cars to get to other air conditioned houses and businesses as quickly as possible. If you go out, you don't walk. Not only will you dehydrate yourself in very short order (there's no humidity in the desert, and the moisture is sucked right out of your body), but nobody on the roads knows how to deal with pedestrians, so there's a very good chance they'll hit you with their Lexuses. If you walk in a crosswalk they don't really know how to yield. It makes sense: who in their right mind would be walking around in the middle of the day in Palm Desert? Even the homeless people know to be indoors.

With that said, I can't imagine why anyone would ever choose to live there. The mountains are pretty but there are mountains in lots of places. There are casinos, but then again, there are casinos in lots of places as well. Pretty much every luxury or convenience you could ever hope to find can be found in the desert, has been transplanted there . . . the only thing for which you will search in vain is a reason why anyone ever settled there in the first place.

(Maybe it was really nice 100 years ago? Somehow I doubt it.)

Spending time in Palm Desert with my family was quite nice. Relaxing. My aunt's pool is salt water, and if you've never swam in a salt water pool, it will make you swear off chlorine forever. But even then we would have to get up early in the morning to drive the two-and-a-smidge hours across the desert, through San Bernardino county, and into the San Fernando valley, to climb back up the mountains north of the city and reach Santa Clarita. I got used to the drive. It's not a bad drive, mostly a straight shot with only a couple turns. The only time traffic is bad is if you drive back eastwards around rush hour, at which point there's always traffic between Pasadena and Rancho Cucamonga. But traffic or no, it is a long drive, especially to be done back and forth in one day.

Maybe it was just because Palm Desert was a way station, not really our destination but more like an intermittent vacation (in between days and weeks spent in Santa Clarita), but the whole thing never felt quite real. There's no nature in Palm Desert. There are hermetically sealed micro-climate habitats bunched along at regular intervals, and lethal heat between those intervals. If the water supply was cut off or disrupted there would be riots within two days. As soon as the bottled water was all sold, people would realize quite abruptly that they are not supposed to be living there, and that the only thing separating people (many of whom are retirees) from the lethal heat is an edifice of man-made climate control, be it in the form of air conditioning or aqueducts. Without these great feats of civil engineering, humanity would scatter and burn. It's very clean but also bare of anything but manmade structures.

On the morning of her first day of classes at the art school, we woke early in Palm Desert and were on the road with no small alacrity. Right as we left the front door of my aunt's house, we felt raindrops. We looked up and saw the sky was uncharacteristically cloudy. In the time it took us to walk across the front driveway and climb into my car, the few raindrops had turned into many raindrops. By the time we reached the main road which would lead us to the freeway the raindrops had turned into a flood.

We were trapped in traffic. The water rose quite quickly - at first only an inch, then two inches, and in short order every car was submerged up to its axles. The few SUVs who had tried to race ahead of the floodwaters were soon mired as well. We sat in traffic in the flood for an hour as the waters raged around the car. A few vehicles sat in the middle of the road with their blinkers on, stranded. We trudged along at roughly 10 feet a minute.

Finally the rain stopped. A few minutes after the rain stopped the water disappeared. I don't mean to say that it started to drain, I mean that it was gone with as much speed as it had appeared. One moment the roads were flooded, and in just a few more the roads were clear. The shoulders were covered in trash, and more than a few vehicles had run aground or spun out of control on the side of the road. We sat in traffic for an hour, listened to Wowee Zowee all the way through, and I almost fell asleep at the wheel. In my defense, I had not had any caffeine all morning, we were in mostly stopped traffic, and with good reason I had left the house believing that our next stop would be a place that sold caffeinated beverages.

We hit the freeway just a little over an hour after we left my aunt's house, having traversed a mile in that time. The roads were clear, if covered in a fine layer of silt. We had caffeine. She made it to her first day of classes in plenty of time. But was it an omen?

Next: Drinking in LA

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Down and Out in Santa Clarita

Or: How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Part Two

Foreigners traveling the United States often complain of the homogeneity of American culture. Everywhere you go, they say, you see the same businesses, the same chain restaurants and the same department stores, with little or no variation for local color. Or at least that's what foreign people say in movies and books. I wonder if foreigners now even notice the homogenization. They have Wal-Marts, too, after all.

There are arguments to be made for homogenization, however, and one of them certainly has to do with the way we travel. Traveling is pretty terrible. I hate it and I avoid it wherever possible. Some people look on traveling as an adventure, a chance to get away from the familiar, to experience something different. That's great, really it is, but how often do you get to actually take those types of trips anymore? Most of my traveling consists of driving someplace at a breakneck speed, settling into a hotel room in a state of exhaustion that never seems to dwindle no matter how restful the beds are, and flailing limply in the general direction of whatever services are available nearby for however long I'm there. It's a good thing if the hotel is down the street from the Wal-Mart, because I really don't want to have to worry about navigating the eccentricities of local supermarket chains at two in the morning.

Seen from the highway, most towns are way stations. If they're lucky they get to keep some character on Main St, but from the highway travelers see in this panoply of towns an unerring reflection of their own desiccated enthusiasm. We don't tour the continent, we strap ourselves to shaky metal wagons and barrel down the freeway at eighty miles per hour in the hopes of making the actual sensation of traveling as brief and painless as possible. Maybe there's something good at the other end of the journey. Maybe there are just more in the way of onerous responsibility. As soon as I pull the car out of the driveway I want to go back home.

There's not a lot of local flavor on display in Santa Clarita. The town itself exists only because Los Angeles needed a bedroom in which to build movie lots and plant orange groves. It's not a college town. The college was built in the sixties with money from Disney for the purpose of accommodating the industry's need for professional artists, craftspeople, and musicians - two other schools, the Chouinard Art Institute and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, were combined to make the college.

But it's not a college town. The school itself is tiny: one large complex on the hill overlooking I-5 and a number of smaller outbuildings. Whereas a larger school can set the tone for the surrounding community, Santa Clarita is first and foremost a bedroom community for Los Angeles, with all the baggage that entails. Secondly, it's home to a Six Flags franchise. Thirdly, it's a college town. A very distant thirdly.

In the fulness of time Santa Clarita reveals itself as less a real city than a hybrid between rich suburb and tourist town. It's twenty minutes from Hollywood and appears to be filled with people who can afford to live above the Valley, but it's also filled with the cheap franchise motels and restaurants surely popular with harried families visiting the amusement park. It's a vacation destination for the unambitious and a bedroom community for upper-middle-class Los Angelinos. Somewhere in between these layers there's a horde of art students wriggling in the dark like mealworms under a rock.

Does Valencia have a downtown? Anything resembling old settlements? If it does, we didn't see them. We saw, instead, rows of tract housing on one end and ritzy apartment blocks on the other. Townies packed into a number of crappy apartment complexes that were never so shiny as on visiting day. After you sign the lease they no longer restrain the jackals. There's a very nice mall and just about every chain retailer you can imagine, including three Wal-Marts. Only one of these is a 24-hour supercenter, which represents more of an inconvenience than you might expect.

Denny's is a good place to find yourself in moments of insecurity. Eating at Denny's frees you of the burden of having to worry about food. Gone is the anxiety over finding a good place to eat: Denny's is not a good place to eat by any stretch, and that is to its credit. Where it excels is consistency. You can walk into any Denny's in the world at any time of night and be seated at a clean table and receive a bottomless drink of some kind. I always order the same things at Denny's. You don't feel guilty for displaying a lack of adventurousness when ordering dinner at midnight at a Denny's: there's no point. If you're lucky you can find one or things on the menu that you can order with the confidence that, even if they aren't good, they are pleasingly not good in a way that can only be described in terms of comfortable, condescending endearment.

IHOP is Denny's scruffy little brother, always vaguely sticky no matter how well he washes himself. IHOP isn't open all night like Dennys, but IHOP does offer a larger variety of dessert items masquerading as breakfast food. The difference between the food at IHOP and the food at Denny's is that you can't really trick yourself into thinking there's anything worth eating at IHOP in the way you sometimes can at Denny's. For some reason I'll never quite understand, IHOP is always full and Denny's is always empty.

We were in limbo for a month, just over four weeks' time. In that time we drove the road between Santa Clarita and Palm Desert at least ten times, sometimes both ways in one day, sometimes with a night at a hotel in between. There's nothing fun about the road between Santa Clarita and Palm Desert: there's always traffic between Pasadena and Rancho Cucamonga. People in San Bernardino drive like they want to die, and I can relate to that. The only beautiful scenery in the entire trip is the rows of hundreds of electric windmills between Banning and Palm Springs.

People asked, "why aren't you settled? Why are you driving back and forth between Santa Clarita and Palm Desert? Why don't you just have an apartment?" The answers to these questions were all the same: there are no places to live in Santa Clarita. It's not a place people should live at all, really. It's a weigh station halfway between somewhere and another place that just happens to be part of LA County because the shit that went down in Chinatown wasn't really as fictional as you might want to think.

So after a hard day of dealing with college registration and the indignities of apartment hunting, what else is there to do but find a nice secluded booth in Denny's and let the wait staff keep refilling your Diet Coke until you are barely awake enough to shuffle back to the hotel? Who cares if you've probably put on ten pounds since the trip started. You don't care about that. You don't care about anything anymore.

Next: Palm Desert Is Hell On Earth

Monday, October 06, 2014

Down and Out in Santa Clarita

Or: How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Part One

Art school is another country. They do things differently there.

My mistake, in hindsight, was ignoring the warnings. There were certainly plenty of warnings - books and movies, full to the brim with cautionary tales. But how could you believe them? Surely Art School Confidential is satire. There's no way there can really be places like that in the year 2014. With how expensive college is, it was inconceivable that any school could remain so blessedly insulated from the plague of accountability infesting the education industry, from Kindergarten on through the last years of graduate school. As strange and terrible as it can, college at least makes sense . . . right?

I'm an academic, you see. I'm a student and a teacher, and at every level of my career I am cocooned by dozens of layers of bureaucratic obscurantism. I've been in school for the last seven years (just now beginning my eighth) and I've been privileged to attend large land-grant public universities. I really like my job, and I've also come to appreciate all the levels of red tape that protect me on a daily basis - from the whims of instructors, professors, administrators, and students. I had never really thought of red tape in this terms before. I was never so grateful for a functioning bureaucracy as I was after I experienced - second-hand, but still - the registration process at a private arts college.

The school states that they don't want an oppressive bureaucracy interfering with students' freedom to craft their own academic destinies. Some programs graciously list the courses necessary to complete certain programs on time, others do not. You can probably guess which programs are better organized than others: those programs involving computers in some way almost inevitably function in a smoother capacity than those representing the more traditional fine arts. Cultural stereotypes regarding the types of people who like to paint and sculpt and those who manipulate pixels on a screen appear at a glance to be self-fulfilling prophecies. The students involved relish embracing these role-types.

The school has been trying to switch over to online registration for a while now. Much of the registration process is successfully conducted online. But there is a strong constituency who resists the conversion: the professors themselves. So while there are some classes for which the student can register online, there are many others for which the student must report to school on an assigned day and stand in line in large hallways in order to ask certain professors to sign permission slips to register in certain classes. The professors appear to love this.

On the face of it, this is an odd situation. This is how students registered for classes in our grandparents' time, before computers or even the creaky, labyrinthine phone registration systems that were still in place when I first attended college. If you told the professors in my department - any department at a state school like Davis - that they would have to sit at a table in a gymnasium all day signing permission slips to manually register students in their classes, they'd rightfully revolt. But then - I'm talking about professors at a large department who often teach large lecture classes with hundreds of students. A University of California campus serves tens of thousands of students. A small arts college - and regardless of how prestigious (and this is a very prestigious school), we're still talking about a very small campus - has few enough people that they can almost get away with maintaining an archaic system seemingly designed to test the patience of each participant.

The professors like being the center of attention. Scratch that - you aren't supposed to call them professors. They don't receive tenure. In any other university environment, non-tenured instructors are the most conscientious faculty possible. But in art school, the rationale is that the lack of tenure provides (supposedly) greater freedom for artists to practice their craft. In reality, ;ack of tenure does nothing to stop instructors from practicing the kind of behavior that would threaten even a tenured professor's job security. They do things differently in art school.

(And as for those kinds of behavior? You don't need to scratch very deep to hear rumors - rumors which, incidentally, are often immediately confirmed by experience, or a quick Facebook search.)

But it all makes sense, really it does. Graduate school in any field is about professionalization: you should leave the program ready and able to take a job as a working professional in whatever field you've studied, be it English literature or medicine. Obtaining a Masters of Fine Arts is also a kind of professionalization. It's just that the professional expectations of a working artist are radically different from those of a professor, a doctor, a lawyer, or a social worker. You have to become accustomed to dealing with unbalanced people with unvoiced expectations and invisible biases. The same basic social skills that serve you well in the rest of society - punctuality, conscientiousness, courtesy - don't carry the same kind of currency, and in fact can be seen as signs of weakness. You have to project an aura of imperturbability at all times, because that is the means by which you communicate your confidence to the world. Confidence is absolutely necessary, even if - especially if - it's completely fraudulent. Better to say nothing and be assumed wise than to open your mouth and be perceived as weak. Even if everyone in the room has the same question, they will castigate you for having been sufficiently weak to ask.

Art school - studio art school - is designed to train young artists to accept the inherent arbitrariness of the art world. Animators get job fairs, painters get nervous looks.

After the appropriate professors sign the paper indicating that they accept you into their classes, you must obtain another signature from the dean of the school. The Dean of the School of Fine Arts doesn't speak to you, doesn't look at you, merely signs the paper you place in front of him without breaking his conversation. Why did he have to sign the paper if he wasn't even going to look at it? Is there any difference between a man signing a paper he doesn't read and simply eliminating the need to sign the paper?

Once the paper has been signed by the necessary parties, it needs to be taken to the library. The library is where the IT people who are responsible for inputting the information on the papers into the system are located. The librarians aren't pleased with this occupation, and neither are the IT personnel pleased with having to fill out forms for students who could just as easily do it for themselves if the system were automated. No one at all seems happy about having to do this except for the art faculty who get to sit at tables and receive their audiences. It helps, slightly, to commiserate with the computer jockeys: everyone involved sees right through the system's insufficiency, but it nonetheless persists. Certain statements are made implying that the old system is on its way out, and that the process is as awkward as it presently is because the proponents of the old system are doing everything they can to postpone the implementation of a new all-digital registration model. But there don't appear to be any timetables for this changeover.

After a few hours of this, registration is completed (this won't be the last time the schedule needs to be changed, however). Every problem of any kind that occurs within the next few weeks will be blamed by faculty on the difficulties of the new registration system.

Next: Dennys and IHOP are friendly places.