Putting Down Roots and Pulling Them Up Again

California Bloodlines
John Stewart

Putting Down Roots and Pulling Them Up Again

Montage of Los Angeles pictures on Commons

John Stewart is probably best known as one of the Kingston Trio. He was not an original member but filled in when one of the founding members left. He grew up in California. His father worked at one of the Orange County race tracks and one of his songs celebrates the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona. In this song he acknowledges his California roots and how he cannot imagine himself as anything but a Californian. I think it interesting that he finds his roots in one of the most rootless states in the union.

My two sisters were born in California and one stayed and one moved east, to Nevada. My brother, like me, was born in Schenectady, New York, but he was not even a year old when we moved to California. I was four. Though I lived in California until I was able to move east, to Massachusetts, in the 1990’s when I was in my forties, I never thought of it as home, I always identified with the East Coast and the changing seasons. The image above contains images of Los Angeles I know very well and I have pleasant memories of them, but though it was home for a long time I never felt my “roots” were there.

My father used to take us camping weekends to those mountains behind the L. A. skyline at least once a month when the snow was not around. Somewhere in those snowy mountains there is a little town called Wrightwood and a campground on the banks of Jackson Lake in an area of the Los Padres National Forest called Big Pines, where we used to camp. We did not have sleeping bags only heavy canvas blankets that we used to throw over us as we slept on the ground. It was great fun.

Many great stories revolve around home and our relationship with home and our roots. My juniors are reading Ethan Frome about a man who has never felt home at home. They will be reading next The Grapes of Wrath about a family that is quite attached to their home but circumstances force them to leave home. Grandpa Joad was one of the pioneers that first settled the Oklahoma land that he has farmed for many years. Larry McMurtry tells a similar story in his memoir Reading Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen of his grandfather moving west to settle an undeveloped land and watched it develop and become settled. Pulling up roots to set them down someplace else makes a good story whether, like the Joads, the move is undesired or, like the McMurtrys, it fulfills an aspiration.

The Plaza and “Old Plaza Church”

This is a Los Angeles street when the west was wild. The gold rush has passed but California and Los Angeles was still a desired destination. Wallace Stegner wrote a marvelous novel Angle of Repose about an old college professor trying to reconstruct the story oh his grandparents’ life. His grandfather was an engineer who had aspirations to settle in the west and use his skills to extract the earth’s riches. He is taken advantage of much of the time but he is ultimately successful as he pursued his engineering career throughout the Western United States and Mexico, settling finally in California, where the family sets down its roots. His grandmother was from the East Coast and moved in sophisticated circles that included Henry James. They were a very different pair but at the same time, the kind of people that settled the west and rebuilt it in their image, an image with roots in Europe.

Perhaps this is what rootlessness produces, a land that comes to resemble the land that was left behind. I enjoy western novels, both those that aspire to be literary art, like those of Wallace Stegner, and those that preserve the romance of the west and whose fiction is a bit pulpy, like those of Zane Grey and Owen Wister. The western, if one can forget for a moment the harm that was done to the people to whom the land originally belonged, is about restlessness and the quest for new horizons and new adventures. The western is often about courage and an ethic that in many ways resembles that of chivalry and the order of knighthood in the medieval romances of Europe. I think this is also a part of the American character, or at least it used to be; a desire to push limits, explore the unknown, and to remake the world.

Los Angeles City Hall shortly after its completion (1931)

About seventy years after the earlier photograph was taken Los Angeles looked more like this, like a major city with a City Hall and paved streets. In the voyages of discovery a place was claimed by the “mother country” with the posting of a flag and the recitation of a few words but the place actually became the “mother country” when it began to resemble this national parent. The stories of Sinbad and Odysseus revolve around men on a journey. Each has many adventures but each wants ultimately to get home, not to a place that has been made to resemble home but to the home they remember. Aeneas is also a man on a journey with no home to go to and the desire to find a corner of the world in which he can make a home. That home became Rome. Aeneas will put down roots that centuries later others will attempt to pull up and replant someplace else.

Growing up in Los Angeles about twenty-five years farther down the road the city did not look that different from the last photograph. There was a trolley system that knit the downtown together. As time passed that trolley system was replaced by a freeway system that threw the city boundaries out many miles in all directions. My brother and two sisters embraced the sunshine and picnics on the beach in mid-January. I longed for snow and a sled.

From The Endless Summer
Bruce Brown Films

This scene from the movie The Endless Summer takes place in South Africa but the quest for the perfect wave was what motivated my brother and many of my friends. I never learned to balance myself on a surfboard, though I could do pretty well on a skateboard. This is the California of Venice Beach, in the montage at the beginning, and The Beach Boys. It was an important part of the California culture in which I grew up. It is the sun and the surf that allegedly draws people to California. I like the ice and the snow. What are roots, what motivates people to set them down one place instead of another? What is the future of roots?

As the world changes the corners of the world are being pulled together. It is now possible for a teacher in Massachusetts to teach students in Ohio, Georgia, and California; Brazil, China, and Arabia. How does this change the classroom and more importantly how does this change the students in that classroom? In some ways it seems that we are beginning to set down roots into a more digital soil, that we are less dependent on a physical place. Our friends do not have to live in our neighborhood or even our state. We no longer have to report at a certain time to a cubicle in a certain place to do our jobs. Perhaps this last is an exaggeration, the world of work is largely unchanged for most, but it is changing and for some it is no longer necessary to “commute to the office” to do their work.

I think we continue to give our loyalty to a nation but we are less bound by the borders of that nation. China, for example, has managed to get Google modified for its citizens so that they do not have the access that citizens of other countries have to news and the lifestyles of the world. But how long will this be possible? What happens when a government can no longer control our digital travel? How will this change the world and our corner of it?

The L. A. Times this week advertised a couple of talks on the city as it was presented in the literature of the past, particularly the books of Raymond Chandler and how it is presented today in the works of contemporary authors. How will this discussion be different twenty years hence? As more and more of us spend more and more time living not on the city sidewalks or the neighborhood hangouts but on a digital cable car that can take us almost anywhere how will our view of “roots” and “place” change? How will this affect our loyalties and our sense of community spirit? What will our “communities” look like?

Public schools are struggling with technology. I was this week invited by my principal to join a teacher discussion group sponsored by one of the districts technology people. The discussion is being hosted on Facebook. The irony of this is that our school blocks Facebook so that no teacher can participate in this discussion during school hours, even though the school is promoting the discussion. On the one hand schools can see the potential that the new technology offers for the future of education but they cannot, on the other hand, get past the problems the technology will bring along with it.

I think the potential gains make the potential risks worthwhile, if only because the students will be using this technology whether the schools use it or not. There are many tools we entrust to our students that are potentially dangerous, automobiles, dissecting knives, and laboratories. Generally students are safer using tools that have potential dangers if they have been taught how to use them properly. But the advantages go beyond this. The schoolroom as it exists today is constrained by geography; it rests on a plot of ground within the village or town that supports it. The technology enables students to study in a world that is larger than their hometown.

Poster for the Film The Endless Summer

Family will always have a claim to some of the roots we put down, which in turn will always tie us to a physical place. But our roots can go deeper and farther and for many this is already happening. I never learned to surf because I could not keep my balance on the surfboard. Perhaps the surfboard has changed a bit, and balance is achieved using different skills and the perfect wave is no longer found at the beach.

A Roof and Someone at Your Side

“I Love L. A.”
Randy Newman

A Bigger Splash

David Hockney



A Roof and Someone at Your Side

What does it mean to know a place? In the song Randy Newman identifies a number of locations familiar to anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Los Angeles. Imperial Highway, The Valley, the East Side, and the West Side; if you have lived in Los Angeles you know these places and can picture not only the name of the street on the traffic sign, but the shops and sites that live there. Imperial Highway is a very long street that goes through well to do sections of town and some not so well to do sections. The West side has the mansions of Bel Aire and Pacific Palisades; but the East Side is where much of the poverty is found. If you live in L. A. you know these places and are familiar with them.

David Hockney is a painter born in Great Britain but he too has made Los Angeles his home. The painting captures the swimming pool and palm tree character of certain parts of L. A. When I was four years old my parents moved from Schenectady, New York to Arcadia, a suburb of Los Angeles, California. We soon moved to the San Fernando Valley, or The Valley. There were many houses in the neighborhoods I grew up in that resembled the painting by Hockney. Even though I never really felt at home in Los Angeles and always missed the snow I know most of the places in Newman’s song and the ethos captured in Hockney’s painting.

Still when I first moved to The Valley it was not developed. It consisted of a few rambling neighborhoods that were becoming the outskirts of a great city but it also consisted of small ranches and a great deal of open undeveloped land. I hiked, fished (after a fashion), swam in ponds within walking distance of my house. For most of the time that I lived there orange groves were always close, in our last house they were at the edge of our back yard. We would purloin the oranges and dodge the agricultural police. Fruit always tastes best fresh off the tree. But we finally left because the city finally overtook the wilderness, or what felt like a wilderness to a child of ten or so years old.

The point is that home is represented by many things. In part it is represented by memories. But it is more than the house in which you live it is the relationships, family and otherwise that are made. If growing up is a pleasant experience these memories and relationships can contribute to the success that is experienced later in life. But of course, like most things it depends on what we do with the experiences. They might just as easily form a kind of cocoon from which we cannot easily escape in order to shape our own unique existence. Though on the whole, a positive home environment is more likely to produce success than an unhappy one.

The Artist’s House at Argenteuil

Claude Monet


The house that Claude Monet called home when this painting was done appears to be a very pleasant space in which to grow up. The child seems happy and the woman at the door watching the child seems to be content. Of course as the woman is almost invisible and the child has her or his back to us it is difficult to know for certain. The house looks like the kind of house most would be happy to call home. A more traditional house than David Hockney’s but it has the same bright blue sky. The house was enchanting enough to Monet that he decided to live there and also decided to paint it. It is a public face and it is difficult to know if the private face would be less compelling. Often the home and family the world sees is different from the home and family we grow up in day to day, or grew up in in the days of our youth.

There was an article in the magazine section of this Sunday’s New York Times. It was called “What It Takes to Make a Student“. It concluded that to a large degree what makes a successful student is successful parents in a successful home environment. The article concerned itself with how well we educate those who come from less successful households with less successful parents, especially those households whose lack of success is largely due to social inequities, largely, but not entirely, of race. The article suggests that the conditions in which children are raised, the vocabulary they are exposed to as children, the positive reinforcement they receive when very young have a lot to do with the academic success these children have in school.

The Little Street (Perhaps the street where he lived, perhaps not, but homey non the less)

Johannes Vermeer

I do not know, but this street does not look affluent to me. It looks like an old street that has been allowed to fall into a bit of disrepair. The look of the brick and the shutters in the windows and the people all suggest poverty to me. This may be because I do not know that much about life in Holland in Vermeer’s lifetime, but poverty has a face that it wears and this painting seems to reflect that face. I wonder about the lives of the people in this painting. The two figures kneeling on the street look like children to me, but it is difficult to say. But if they are children what is their life like? What were their educational opportunities?

I think that present day America takes more seriously the education of its children than do many cultures past and present. The difference between Holland of the seventeenth century and America of today (at least the stereotype that I carry with me) is that we question the quality of education those in poverty receive and take steps, not always effective, to achieve parity between the schools of the rich and the schools of the poor. Often this is little more than lip service, but certainly not always. The strength of the private schools in America is that, for the most part, they only accept those students they can succeed in educating, but that is also their weakness. What does success mean when the possibility of failure is largely removed from the equation? It is often the fear of the consequences of failure that produces the most striking innovations. On the other hand America’s public schools attempt to educate everyone and that is their strength. This is also their weakness. How can schools give a quality education to all when there is such a broad mix of skills and academic needs, not to mention political forces?

I wonder about the article in the New York Times because on one level it suggests that poor families care less about their children than rich families. Parents on the whole want the best for their children, though they may not always know how to provide the best. Poverty is demoralizing and some are better than others at distancing their children from the consequences that being demoralized often produces. I grew up with stories about people who lived in poverty that successfully provided for their children’s needs and this included their educational needs. Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry comes most immediately to mind. Having educated parents is a real advantage for a child’s education. But having nurturing parents is at least as great an advantage.

Our Town
Paul Newman

Thornton Wilder in his play Our Town captures not only small town American life, but the essence of home and family, at least how it is imagined to have been, in small town America. Grover’s Corners is a nurturing place, a village that raises its children. But this monologue from the play suggests that not much of importance happens in life and family on this side of the grave; that there is a race to forget this side of the grave. There are good people and good families in the play and children that are raised to be happy and successful. The families of George and Emily are supportive and give their children the skills living well require, though there are also many missed opportunities and sacrifices made which produces a kind of quiet unhappiness in some.

In many ways the world of Our Town suggests the world of the film It’s a Wonderful Life which also focuses on family and the obligations that come with being a member of a family and a community. In both Grover’s Corners and Bedford Falls place is important and the people that make each place what it is are important. The lives these characters lived has an appeal, there is much that is desirable about the lives, memories, relationships, and families these people have. There are also many significant sacrifices and perhaps it is true that for a life to have value choices must be made and some things given up so that other more important things can be achieved. This is especially true with education. It is costly but the failure to educate has long run consequences for the community and the country.

I look back fondly on the music of The Beach Boys, the bright blue California sun and the bright blue waves of the Pacific, perhaps bluer in memory than in life. My parents made sacrifices for me and the parents of the children I grew up with were largely committed to seeing to it that their children had at least as a good a life but hopefully a better life than the one they were enjoying. And perhaps the key word is “enjoying”. It is easier to sacrifice if at the end of the day there is enough to make the day enjoyable. It was a neighborhood of fisherman and engineers, carpenters and doctors. It had a nice mix, though a rather homogenous one in certain respects; this was the 1960’s after all. I think over all we are judged as a culture by what we are willing to give up for our children more than by the things that we accumulate or the things we accomplish. And all children deserve a good family, a good education, and a community in harmony with itself where all children can say “I Love . . . .