On nostalgia

When I was a kid I used to love reading my grandparents' back issues of Country magazine. The glossy issues were mostly photographs sent in by subscribers, with the occasional article about twenty-first century barn raising or specialty pie crusts thrown in for good measure. More than anything the magazine celebrated nostalgia - think of those inspirational messages superimposed over kittens dangling from trees, those close-ups of basset hounds and babies in baskets. It was so sentimental, but the reason why it worked was because it was one hundred percent sincere. Try as I might, I could never find a hint of irony in those pages. Just puns, and American flags, and corn on the cob and Fourth of July.

I was reading these magazines in the Bush Sr. years and on into the Clinton era. It was really difficult to read these magazines come 2001 - by then the red, white and blue felt ironic in spite of itself.

For years I felt a similar pang of nostalgia when I thought about my hometown. How could you not? You grow up, you go away, you come back, and suddenly there are all the trees you grew up climbing, and there's the pond where you once caught tadpoles, and there's the Farmer's Market with all the vendors who know your first and last name. I was always reminded of the caption-writing contests in Country, and how, if I framed a scene with my fingers, I could name what happened there: where I learned to read. Where Josh built a skate ramp. Where we put on plays. All those quiet spaces where, on quiet evenings when the weather was right, you could reinvent yourself.

Coming back as an adult, as a graduate student, as a person with relationships and ties to other communities, has transformed, yet again, what my hometown is to me. It's a place intensely focused on school - a place where people come from around the world to study the crops, the law, medicine, science, writing. But it's just as much (if not more) what happens when school is not in session. Running 5ks, 10ks, half marathons. Local artists, local crafts, Flea Markets, farmers from around the valley, families on bikes, activists.

The last few years have taught me how to write, how to read, how to teach, how to cultivate and participate in a literary community, and perhaps more than all that, how to be an adult in the town I knew as a child. I get to hang out with my parents because they are my family and because they are my friends. I can reconnect with childhood friends beyond the superficial - I can really see what their adult lives are like. I can make my own decisions and judgments about the things I like and don't like about living in a small town.

In some ways leaving Davis a second time is giving me the chance to grow up again; to have a clearer idea of what I want from the world, of what I can contribute, of who I want with me along the way. This is not kittens hanging from trees or basset hounds in baskets. This is acknowledging that the world is imperfect, that sometimes bad shit happens, that the universe is not ruled on reason. And the best thing about being a writer is knowing that when things go wrong, you've got the vocabulary at your fingertips to put a name to it all. Name it, own it, make it art, move on.

And there, by the grace of whatever, go I...

Winter fog

Usually when the fog comes in, it is a timid guest. It burns off by midday, then pulls back to reveal the sun, a well-kept secret. But today was a tule day. Today, the air got progressively thicker, fuller, and wetter as the afternoon wore on. I stayed in my office later than normal, absorbed in an essay I am writing on Spain, and was completely unprepared when I emerged from Voorhies at 6 pm and wandered straight into the clouds. The air was mythic. Light from nearby lampposts cut through the fog in broad rays; inverse sunshine.

Within minutes, my coat and pants were streaked in dewdrops, little globules that glistened perversely in the evening light. It was difficult to see further than ten or twenty feet ahead; beyond that was gray emptiness. It made biking through Davis feel like jumping into a void, holding my breath as I trusted the path in front of me to stay a path. This is the kind of environment where stuff can happen. Mysterious stuff. Good stuff. Bad stuff. Surprising stuff. Stuff that can jump out at you.

As a child I associated tule fog with the endlessness of winter nights. It was inevitable; there would always be nights that felt too long or too strange or made it hard to see. I only recently learned that tule fog is particular to the Sacramento Valley, due to the fact that once the cold air enters the valley, it is shut inward by the Sierra Nevada mountains. It's turned in on itself, forced to confront itself in wet streaks from Sacramento clear to Redding, even as far as Bakersfield. Often the air above the low-lying fog is warmer and clearer. The sky cheats, I think. Maybe it does this to remind all of us how blind we actually are. To make us turn inwards as well.

Picture of the Day: Fairfield School

My favorite school: Fairfield Elementary. This is a two-room schoolhouse five miles west of the town where I grew up, a small little red brick building lost in miles of ag land. Hot air balloons used to land in the fields behind the school. Lizards used to lose their tails under the wooden walkway at lunchtime.

I hope that in this rush to salvage public education, we don't lose sight of just how much it means.