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November, 2002

Another County, Not My Own
By Knowles Harper

I suppose I could say that we want to semi-retire, now that the kids are older and want some distance, and will move to North Kohala to pursue visions of sitting barefoot on the porch eating the local mango sorbet, so that Lola can continue her design business and I can write, but that would be like saying we decided to buy a Town & Country because it weighs ten tons and would survive a collision with a BART train: it's true but it's not the whole story.

Everybody who moves out of town to seek a new life, escape the IRS, satisfy an employer, join a lover, or cash in and live on the cheap has daydreams about what the new place will be like. Lately I have been clicking onto web sites and reading books about places such as the Big Island, Falmouth, Boulder, Taos, New York City, Charlottesville, Austin, and even, yes, Los Angeles. Life out there sure looks great from here.

I daydream about driving around New England in search of a maple nightstand for my books and the perfect chowder. I think about living in places where there are distinct seasons and different smells, each with its own pagan rituals to be shared with neighbors and visitors from back home. I wonder what it would be like to take the train to Montreal for the weekend, to watch snow fall on my own driveway instead of some rental's, and to say "how do?" along the River Walk in San Antonio. I imagine about spending whole days in the music archives of Library of Congress, listening to tapes of Mississippi John Hurt and the Weavers.

In these dreams I envision many visitors, some welcome, who come to stay for a week or more, and all they can talk about is how "different" Lola and I are acting. "You two seem so HAPPY," they say, as if it is some kind of miracle. "Gee," I say, "I thought we were happy living in Marin." Who wouldn't be?

Indeed, the problem isn't simply that we seek greener pastures. By the time we get to Tucson, I can foresee a torrent of remorse oozing from every pore, soaking our clothes. Remorse after 50 is not pretty.

The problem is that we don't much like it here anymore. It's kind of like walking into the wrong party. How did I get here?

A little context: my family made the move over from the Marina District of San Francisco in 1956. For a lad of five, this was like moving 5000 miles away. To say the least, I wasn't thrilled. No more walks with my mother down Chestnut Street, visits to the Palace of Fine Arts, Eskimo pies at the Marina, romping at Playland at the Beach, Sunday ballgames at Funston Field, or cheesecake at the Hippo. No hopping on Muni, waiting for cooling fog every day, and bubble gum from O'Connor's Market.

Just strange and new things: wild ducks in the air, lots of open space, a nearby slough with varmints of all kinds, warmer weather, and nobody on the highway, if that's what you could call 101 in those days.

My dad was a tightly wound, Jesuit-trained accountant who specialized in restaurants and took medications for high blood pressure, gout, kidney stones, and allergies. He ate too much of what his clients cooked for him to keep his fees down, and played golf to get away from his wife and kids. At one time or another he worked for all the great dining houses in the City. When we lived in the Marina, we ate out every night, literally, either because my dad's clients never had the cachungas to give him a bill or because my mom, a sweet and gentle Plato-reading beatnik jazz-lover, couldn't cook. My sister and I were happy to go along.

I don't recall thinking that this was unusual. The only meals I can remember eating at home were cereal in the morning and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at lunch. I remember exactly one dinner on Baker Street, a potluck on Christmas Eve when I was three or four, during which our landlord fell asleep in my dad's chair. He was still there when I woke up to check what Santa had left under the tree. The old man had too much wine.

We moved into a house in tiny Larkspur located in a brand new development of 3 bedroom, 2 bath homes rapidly filling in with families who liked the sound of a $19,000 purchase price and 3% GI loan terms. When the lots were full a few years later there were 107 homes and about 400 kids. There were more kids in our neighborhoods than rats in Corte Madera Creek, especially after we all got BB guns.

Dads went to the City dressed alike to work for Bank of America, the phone company, or Crown Zellerbach. Moms stayed home, drinking a lot of coffee and smoking packs of cigarettes to fight the boredom. My mom smoked and drank and suffered. She cooked and we all suffered. My dad once said that her meals were based on religious precepts: they were either burnt offerings or sacrifices.

People in our neighborhood had the same problems we have today. Drugs and alcohol, divorce, and other divisions were evident, even to the na•ve eyes of youth. The world was essentially the same, but it was smaller, quieter, much less hectic, and not as mean-spirited. Take that.

Marin County is those days was an island, a middle-class bedroom community with lots of territory, almost no traffic, very few diversions, not much in the way of visible wealth, and a care-free attitude. For a kid, it was heaven. And it was heaven for lots and lots of kids, as we baby boomers were about to find out later when we got into high school and found ourselves alongside the more than 600 students in the graduating class of 1969.

Oh, lordy, how things have changed. Yes, I hear you say, the world is a different place everywhere, mostly for the better, and I agree, unless you are poor or were born in the Middle East. But there are places where the status quo doesn't work very well and Marin is one of them.

I believe the Year When It All Changed was 1975, when Old Marin became Modern Marin. I am not sure what got it all started. As you recall, the Seventies were weird. The people who had moved into the area in the mid-Fifties from San Francisco or further away started to see their boomer kids go off to college. Many apparently happy marriages were closely self-examined and did not stand up to scrutiny. Some parents had lost kids in Vietnam. Disillusionment gradually defeated illusionment, turning into delusionment. Change and pot smoke were in the air.

The Bay Area had been a Mecca of sorts in the Sixties in the music and drugs years, but it became a different kind of destination, for est graduates and others who sought a different lifestyle from those of Chicago, Buffalo, or Boston. During those early years of transformation, Edwin Neumann of NBC did a documentary about Marin that highlighted hot tubs and peacock feathers. Marin residents who'd been here awhile thought the program was total bullshit. They were wrong. The invasion was underway.

The wonderful writer Cyra McFadden was the first chronicler of the confluence of money, youth, and behavioral excess that was Modern Marin. Her parody, a series of stories about drugging, wife swapping, and other adult games entitled The Serial, was featured in the Pacific Sun, an alternative weekly that has managed to survive all these years. "What to Wear to Woodacre" was one of her installments. My family had been coming to a summer shanty in Woodacre, a hamlet in West Marin, since the Twenties and nobody ever had to ask what the hell to wear. In 1975 it became an issue. Needless to say, both Cyra and Edwin got the stories right.

I took my diploma from the University of California at Berkeley, got married, and fell into a job bussing and waiting tables at Victoria Station, where, other than the manager, I may have been the only employee without an expensive and somewhat entertaining cocaine habit. One night I received a fifty- dollar tip from the late rock impresario and New York City transplant, Bill Graham. Cocaine, New Yorkers, and 50 buck tips. Things were changing.

Despite the drugs and East Coast in-migrants, it seems tame in retrospect, that period of 25 to 30 years ago, so innocent. The days of seeming innocence are long gone now. Alas, Modern Marin has been replaced by a much harder-nosed and perhaps more realistic time frame, the Postmodern Marin.

Postmodern Marin, like so may things postmodern, is a place of mystery and wonder characterized by the apparently incompatible concepts of entitlement, fear, boundless affluence, excessive introspection, ambition, political correctness, and ordinary meanness. This stew of advanced existential philosophy is why I need to get the hell out of here.

In other words, it's not the place, it's the people.

Let me give you a few examples. There is a four-way arterial intersection in a neighborhood near our house containing streets lined with lovely elm trees that provide shade for solid but not spectacular houses built in the Nineteen Forties and Fifties. In postmodern real estate terms, this means that the homes were built for about $2000 and now would sell for over 400 times that amount. There are neighborhoods like this all over this great nation of ours, except for the price tags, of course. People live, they drive, they live again.

Not at this intersection. During busy drive time, which is about 20 hours a day, this little intersection is at war, an equal opportunity verbal abuse zone for soccer moms in their Escalades, delivery van drivers, commuters, and gardeners from Oaxaca. If we had guns, there would be bloodshed. The old rule about the driver to the right getting to make the first move? Doesn't apply here. Get across and out of the way, buddy, or I'll honk your ass to Santa Rosa. This is Postmodern Marin, for Christ's sake.

When I drive in Los Angeles and traffic builds, I expect it and it doesn't bother me. When I drive in Mill Valley and people in their cars behave so badly that Jerry Springer would have trouble booking them, it makes me nuts. Marin drivers are the world's worst. This is not a matter of opinion.

I could go on about cars, about the 1:1 ration between cars and family members, including pets, and about the fact that kids in high school can't read, write, or speak well but they sure as hell can get a driver's license and enough money to fill the Beamer with gas. But there are other issues.

My lifelong study shows that Marin County is the world's capital of overprotective, overindulgent, micromanaging parents. It is no wonder that expensive private schools are the new "communities" that rule here, daily examples of the steady downfall of civic life. Around our house, we can always tell which of the kids who visit the house for a birthday party or other non-official event comes from a private school family. It's a story right out of "The Nanny Diaries."

It starts with the "interview" after invitations are sent out. A mom will call to say that since we've never met, she'd like to get "comfortable" with the "situation." Mind you, this is a birthday party, not a situation, but the tone of the transaction has been set. Her child has other options for that day and it is her job to weigh them carefully and make a decision that will create maximum harmony with the child and a complete absence of risk. Fun? What is that? Though we've yet to be asked for the last 2 years of tax returns it is apparent that, in a birthday party situation, all other parent queries have become standard operating procedure in Postmodern Marin. Mortgage lenders are less demanding

The exhaustive interview, while challenging in its completeness, is not the end. Next comes the drive-by, to assess the appropriateness of the neighborhood setting, which is scheduled a few days before the conditional acceptance of the invitation, delivered by phone or email. On the day of the event, a term used to refer to the party itself, Mom appears 15-30 minutes prior to the starting time on the invitation, for the formal walk-through.

She is slender and always dressed, decorated and coifed to casual, understated perfection, exuding the kind of aggressive, sincere serenity that only private school parents have earned the rights to wear. If it's summer she goes sleeveless, the better to put those granite-like triceps on display.

She introduces herself and child through sunglasses, even in the stone gray of February, with an imperceptible smile so as not to betray her feelings about having to actually penetrate the city limits of San Rafael, and then sprints passed the attempted handshake into due diligence mode. She is now on the prowl, sometimes with Momcam in hand, to find the hazards to her son or daughter's health that abound in our dangerously inadequate household.

More than once a Postmodern Marin mom has taken a tape measure (purchased from Brookstone or Sharper Image, of course) out of her Gucci bag to check the space between the vertical slats on our wooden decks, which as they are situated several perilous feet over the ground underneath create a Type 1 hazard, to ascertain if Buffy or Joshua's head would fit through. If the head does fit, she won't quit. Horrified but with a dead calm exterior, she simply asks us to have our contractor install wire mesh across the decks in the next 10 minutes. Sure, no problem.

Once due diligence is compete, in no more than 20-30 minutes, the party is about to begin and she is off to lunch with the Gettys, unless the event includes an automobile trip to some fun location, such as a frightful bowling alley or park like venue, in which case she will have to know not only who will drive but who also may drive, and will then inspect all required insurance documentation plus conduct a routine background check. No, problem, she can get a quick TRW through her palm pilot.

She always arrives about 20 minutes after official party closing time, partly because traffic on the Bridge back from lunch at Plump Jack's was so awful, and partly because she just loves to share her insufferable, snot-nosed, overindulged child with us for as long as possible, since she knows the impeccable breeding will rub off on my swarthy immigrant offspring. We are so honored.

Now let's talk about youth sports.

 

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