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Chinaberry Farm: Finding Home

Hard-won solitude

Valle Vista is dog country; on summer nights dogs vie with coyotes over the moon.
  • Valle Vista is dog country; on summer nights dogs vie with coyotes over the moon.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

When I first passed through Hemet on my way to Idyllwild some years back, it seemed the kind of place I could never live. A derelict Palm Springs, full of evangelical churches, funeral homes, and aging sun worshipers. The place where Art Linkletter built his retirement haven and Scientologists established their world headquarters (rumor has it John Travolta visits regularly). Locals say if your car breaks down as you pass through the Scientology compound on Gilman Springs Road, armed guards step from the shrubbery to surround you. “Pray for me, I drive in Hemet,” bumper strips decry (Riverside County is the most dangerous place to drive in California), and prescription-counter lines stretch to the back of drug stores. The religious lunatic fringe has designated Hemet a bona fide rapture zone — its vibe lines wide open to heaven.

Author with Millie and Butch. Millie lies atop my feet as I write, pink belly exposed. Marilyn Monroe beauty marks on both cheeks.

Author with Millie and Butch. Millie lies atop my feet as I write, pink belly exposed. Marilyn Monroe beauty marks on both cheeks.

Add to this collocation of mismatched virtues a sense that you have entered a time warp as you pass through the town’s older neighborhoods — tidy bungalows, oleander and hop bush hedges, cactus and rose gardens, overspreading mulberry trees (“umbrella trees” in local speak). Hemet remains stuck in the ’50s where I grew up, Pleasantville ferried to the new millennium. Driving home from teaching at San Diego State, I am charmed into a nostalgic trance by the Everly Brothers on the oldies’ station urging Little Susie to wake up. Old men sip scalding black coffee at the donut shop on the corner of State and Stetson. Stars distort through a malty olfactory haze rising off dairy farms out near Mystic Lake. The smell can hit you like death’s breath as you wind down Lams Canyon from Highway 10, returning home from a trip to L.A. White crosses on Ramona Expressway are nearly as numerous as signs advertising housing developments.

We stand in the yard listening, Millie and Butch silent, ears straight up, that feral opera all around us, one aria building on the last, like the mad choirboys in Lord of the Flies.

We stand in the yard listening, Millie and Butch silent, ears straight up, that feral opera all around us, one aria building on the last, like the mad choirboys in Lord of the Flies.

On dear winter days, hawks leave faint vapor trails against mountains, snowcapped and scintillant—San Jacinto to the east (locally pronounced San Yacinto), San Gorgonio to the north. Even in wilting summer heat, when cool and moisture retreat far underground, snow fields remain in the eye’s memory. Santa Ana winds blow off the desert on 115-degree September days, hair crackles with static electricity, the San Jacinto River retreats underground to flow upside-down. On Sundays, locals sight-in their deer rifles in the river wash a quarter mile east of our place — separating Anglo land from the Soboba Reservation-spanning foothills; occasionally, we hear the repeated hammer taps of automatic-weapon fire. Crackled mud flats in the wash like an art form combining ceramics and geophysics; cottonwoods, sand verbena, mesquite, and cactus, coyote scat everywhere, three-wheeler tracks over sand tussocks. Some joker recently popped off a shot at Cindy and me out walking our dogs in the wash — a loud crack past our ears.... But I’m getting ahead.

Cindy had just seen a farm house for sale in Valle Vista east of Hemet—two-thirds of an acre, empty fields three sides, outbuildings, great mountain view, asking price: $89,000. I thought the price must be a mistake.

Cindy had just seen a farm house for sale in Valle Vista east of Hemet—two-thirds of an acre, empty fields three sides, outbuildings, great mountain view, asking price: $89,000. I thought the price must be a mistake.

When asked what matters most in life, Freud said, “To love and to work.” I propose adding to his formula: To find home.

November 1997: My wife, Lucinda (Cindy) had landed a job as art gallery director at Mt. San Jacinto College outside of Hemet; she commuted three days a week from our place in San Marcos. One weekend, we toured the area looking at houses for sale with writer friend Don Stuefloten, who lives in Hemet. Not really serious, possibility surfing. A few days later Cindy came home from work excited She’d just seen a farm house for sale in Valle Vista east of Hemet—two-thirds of an acre, empty fields three sides, outbuildings, great mountain view, asking price: $89,000. Thinking the price must be a mistake, I checked the realty spec sheet: BR-2, basement, utility room, workshop, east-facing, driveway, great-room, horse-prop, storage space. Bit 1943, property fenced, wall-to-wall AC-yes, patio-yes, water-PRIV....

We sit in the unfinished studio, husband and wife, on afternoon coffee break.

We sit in the unfinished studio, husband and wife, on afternoon coffee break.

“There’s the catch,” I said, “private water. No one has a well in Southern California.”

“The realtor says there’s plenty of water,” Cindy said.

“Since when are we looking to buy a house?”

“You have to see it...please. Will you see it, honey? You can look at it at least.”

“You want to buy a house...in Hemet? With what?”

“We could do it. I just want you to see it.”

Cindy spoke of looking back along the walkway toward the house from the outbuilding that was to become her studio.

Cindy spoke of looking back along the walkway toward the house from the outbuilding that was to become her studio.

My wife has a genius for bringing hopes alive. By Friday, she’d not only talked me into seeing the place, but we’d moved in, retired, and done our best work there. She spoke of looking back along the walkway toward the house from the outbuilding that was to become her studio, how fantastic it would be to have a compound. Meanwhile, capitalism’s elfin number crunchers were at work in me: we’d laid out $84,000 to our landlord over the past eight years and had zip to show for it; they hadn’t even touched up the paint. So we drove out one bright sunny November day to Valle Vista.

You notice chinaberry trees first, great old trunks, outspreading crowns shading the house, tall Fir tree out front. The white farm house is a smaller version of my grandmother’s in Oregon, where I spent summers as a boy — screened porch, garage/bam at end of the drive, covered patio behind the house, fenced garden area north side of the property, a long white outbuilding with a shed roof south side beside the Truth Tabernacle church...right next door! Looking more like an IHOP than.a place of worship. A chunky brindle Akita eyed us through a chain-link fence, a disheveled woman stepped off the screened porch. “George didn’t tell me no one was coming out.” Fortyish, wearing a green sweatshirt, Margie’s sweatpants bulged across her belly. “Jewel don’t bite,” she said, inviting us in to have a look. Puppies tumbled over our feet as we came in the gate; Jewel sniffed and wagged her tail.

The soaked-in smell of urine assaulted us as we entered the house. Wall-to-wall carpet the mint green of public toilet stalls, stained with animal shit, grape Kool-Aid, ground-in oil from car transmissions the owner’s son had repaired on the carpet. Wallpaper belles and beaus courted on lawn swings before antebellum mansions. That goes first, I’m thinking, right after we deal with the carpet. The large front room flooded with light, windows all sides. Margie telling us, “Mom’s elderly, she can’t keep up with the place no more. My asshole brother and his friends breaks a window and comes in. That’s all his mess on the rug.” Her daughter appeared from a back room — 15, platinum hair chopped short, torn Jeans, the bruised-eye-and-cheek-bone Rocky Horror Picture Show look.

“My Uncle Bumpy is a pig.”

Some dicey package: bedrooms stinking of cat shit, litters of kittens in closets, mounds of trash in kitchen corners, Uncle Bumpy fresh out of prison. But the house is structurally sound — new roof, freshly painted outside. Imagine trash hauled off, barn redone, house refurbished. We had long talked of owning an old farmhouse on the outskirts of town, something cheap. Here it was. From one side of the property, you must megaphone hands about your mouth to call to someone on the other side. The Pueblo Sereno trailer park, 200 yards across an empty field, is something of an eyesore, but majestic Mt. San Jacinto and rugged foothills dominated the eastern horizon above it, gone blue in late-aftemoon light. Remnants of olive groves lined the street, extending down to standing groves at Georgiana Ranch on Palm. There was the church, sure, but what quieter neighbor than a church? I was charmed in spite of myself.

“There’s two couples is already made offers,” Margie told us as we were leaving. That price, those views — sure. But I didn’t believe her. House buyers hereabouts want split-level ranches with four baths, self-cleaning toilets, and cathedral ceilings.

We were cooking with excitement and urgency on the drive home. All that potential: painting studio, workshop, bedroom for my study, olive and pomegranate trees, gardening and growing room.. .our own water supply. Incredible. Peace and space away from the frantic, soul-numbing freeway life. We’d begun to think such places forever beyond our reach. That hole in the cosmic luck layer couldn’t remain open long.

That was Tuesday. Friday, after the week’s teaching, we drove back out to meet the realtor. Not that we were doing this, I told myself. I wanted to get pictures for an article I was writing on road shrines.

George Schtooling has the leisurely air of a man who wears pink polyester slacks on the golf course. Sixtyish, longfaced and legged, he strolled behind us, hands behind his back, as we walked the property. Always managing to leap ahead, in that insinuating way of realtors, to point out problems before we noticed them: water puddled in a corner of the basement— It's an El Niño year, after all...a spaghetti tangle of wiring in the barn — Oh, it's all been disconnected.. .stained carpeting — That's high-quality carpet, feel the nap. You could have it dyed.

As we were leaving, a gray Bondo special pickup roared up out front, a sparsely-bearded, heavyset man in a T-shirt came in through the gate and stumped back toward the barn. Mild and chatty Margie went ballistic. She ran for the porch and emerged with a baseball bat, shrieking, “You stay away from me, you sunuvabitch!” Jewel lunged for the man — tail-wagging, leaping up to lick his face. We stood in a thrall of bewilderment as Margie took a wide-footed stance on the lawn, bat cocked, face distorted, shouting obscenities at the barn. Schtooling hurried us out the gate, explaining sotto voce that Margie had accused the brother of assaulting her. Cindy suggested we stick around to make sure she was safe. The realtor snapped, “It isn’t our concern.” We waited, nonetheless, until Margie went back in the house.

So we met Bumpy: felon, drug dealer, sister-abuser, handyman, sweetest guy — everyone insists — when he isn’t doing drugs. Resident spook. I still find glass in the flowerbeds from windows he broke out to get in the house. We hear stories about his assaults on neighborhood women, rowdy pals, and wild parties. But I’m getting ahead.


Form AD-14 of the Residential Purchase Agreement, just past Buyer’s Inspection Advisory, reads: “Agent representing both seller and . buyer.” Our first mistake. Not our last. Sunday night, we sit at the dining table of Schooling's “ranch” overlooking the San Jacinto Valley, everything spit and polish, his wife polite to the point of inanity. We are not in our right minds: buying a house without intention of buying, without house hunting, without the means to do so — cheap as it is. Having violated rule number one, for those of us who suffer from noise and commotion sensitivity: always stop by a putative dwelling place at different times of the day to do listenings. What annoyance lurks in the Truth Tabernacle next door? Or the trailer catty-corner behind the house? Fourteen unruly kids? A high school rock band?

Cindy asks if Bumpy will be a problem.

“The mother’s the attraction,” Schtooling says impatiently. “Once she’s gone, he will be. She gives him money is the trouble.”

When we offer $80,000, Schtooling slams his notebook closed in disgust. A well-rehearsed gesture, effective nonetheless. “She’s turned down 82. The land alone is worth 70, the trees worth maybe 10, the well. The house comes free.” We remind him of cracks in basement walls, standing water, dry rot in the barn, the shed roof.

“She’s elderly, she needs to get her price.”

“Eighty-four,” I hear myself say.

He works a finger in an ear. “I can take it to her.” Sometimes you fast-forward in life. That’s when things get interesting. “Take opportunity at the tide,” Shakespeare urges. But this is tsunami. Not a week since we first saw the place, and I’ve just made an offer.

We walk the 14-page purchase agreement line by line: which fees the seller pays, which the buyer, which we split. Schtooling writes in P. 2, clause 7: Any personal property left on premises after the dose of escrow shall become the buyer’s property. Schtooling urges we hire a “reliable home inspector” to check the place out; there’s one he uses.

P.2, Form TDS-14: Shed on south side of property 4 ft. (approx) over on church property. The church owns four feet of our future shed? No problem, he insists; it’s been that way for years.

“You may wake up in the middle of the night in a panic,” Schtooling warns us as we leave. “Give yourselves time to let it sink in.” I wonder how often people call him back at 3:00 a.m. “Sorry, George, we’ve changed our minds.”

Two days later Schtooling calls. The owner wants to meet us before accepting our offer. He discourages such meetings; personality clashes can sour a deal. But Mrs. L. insists. Spry, white-haired, 83, cornflower-blue eyes switching with her moods from lively to rheumy, Mrs. L is sick at heart to give up “the farm.” She assures us there’s plenty of water. “We grew cucumbers this big,” stretching hands a foot apart “You’ll keep my lovely wallpaper?” Pointing to the hideous antebellum stuff. We keep our own counsel. Seems we pass muster. Mrs. L is impressed that Cindy has fallen in love with the smallest of Jewel’s puppies, who trips along at her heels. But, by week’s end, she still can’t bring herself to accept our offer.

Schtooling calls on Saturday: Mrs. L wants to know if we like animals. She will accept our offer if we take two of the puppies. Millie lies atop my feet as I write, pink belly exposed. Marilyn Monroe beauty marks on both cheeks, the sweetest disposition I’ve ever known in dog or human; her brown, expressive eyes stare up at me. True, it’s an ideal place for a dog, the property fenced. Valle Vista is dog country, on summer nights dogs vie with coyotes over the moon. But since our St. Bernard was shot in Oregon years back. I’ve sworn I’ll never have another dog, Let alone two! “I want a dog living out there,” Cindy says. “They’ll keep each other company.”

“We’ll be stuck with them if the deal falls through.” “It won’t.”

Feeling as if I’ve signed over power of attorney in my life to caprice, I call Schtooling back to accept. He’s enjoying this. It’s the kind of story realtors exchange at “Divide Up America” conferences. You really want to close a deal, throw in a couple of dogs.

Millie and Butch — Akita-shepherds, forward curling tails, compact bodies, alert, intelligent eyes—make no protest when we carry them to the car that December day. Back in San Marcos, they gorge down bowls of food, famished I’ve penned off the kitchen of our rental (pets expressly forbidden in the lease) with a low picket fence, which we must step over for months. To our amazement they are house-broken. Once bathed, they no longer smell like dung bunnies.

I’d all but forgotten the joy of roughhousing with the dogs, growling, biting ears, playing three-way tug of war with a length of rope. Standing trailside at Mammoth Lakes with a smug my-dog-can-kick-your-dog's-ass smirk, restraining Butch’s 130 snarling pounds as some hiker’s golden retriever slinks past. He is built like a land torpedo. People lover, dog hater.

But returning to their birthplace after three months on the coast, they regress and go demonic, spooked by canine memories or fears. They tear up lawn, ground cover, garage doors, rugs. We leave them in the kitchen one night when we go out. Butch chews through drywall trying to get out. If left outside for the night, they bark and keep us up. The morning after I close them in the newly refurbished utility room, it looks like a bear was caged there, floor littered with molding splinters and plaster dust While sweet and affectionate, Akitas are as impetuous and willful as Ross Perot. Downright vengeful. They know exactly what will piss me off. I plant blackberry vines; they eat them, thorns and all. Rule number one: everything must be fenced. We swallow our pride and consult a dog trainer. She suggests we crate them—cutting edge in dog conditioning — we refuse but take her advice to heart: “Don’t give them a chance to get in trouble.” I repair the fence around the garden area for a dog pen; nothing to damage there. And watch one day as Butch drags his weight upward, paw by paw over the gate, hanging up on his belly atop, dogpaddling over. He looks like a sun bear. We bring them into the bedroom to sleep with us. Peace restored.


Half of what loan officer Daryl Cowrie of TrueHome Mortgage Company tells me on the phone I don’t understand: conventional loan, flexible, points, originator’s fees, STRs & PERs options on retirement plans, Mello-Roos.... Frantically, I jot notes and mumble, “Yeah, sure...” Who’s going to loan you money if they think you are an idiot? One and one quarter points at seven and one quarter percent, none at seven and three quarters. It’s up to you. What are points? You might do better with your credit union. What credit union?

The Saturday morning he comes into the office to meet with us. Cowrie looks up from our loan application, dumfounded. “No car payments, furniture payments.. .nothing?”

“We always pay cash.” Subversives in Plastic Land. Add some gaps in our credit record: my refusal to pay an oral surgeon in Kingston, New York, full price for a root canal he half-finished. Foolish as it may be in a world where credit cleanliness is next to godliness, we refuse payments to incompetents and assholes.

“Ohh-kay.” Daryl squinches his lips together and makes a flourish with his pen. “The good news is you’re not overextended.” He laughs, we laugh nervously back. Schtooling said it would be easy, he’s worked with Daryl for years.

Cowrie finds our job history particularly puzzling. “How many jobs do you have? San Diego State, UCLA, UCSD, the Writing Center. It only takes one.”

“It all adds up. I’m a writer.” A mistake, I realize, to admit it.

He flashes me a hometown version of Ivan Boesky’s legendary rictus. “Who isn’t?” His pen scratches. “Teacher.” “Fiction writer,” I insist. “I do some teaching.”

“Your wife’s worse.” Cowrie frowns and grills Cindy about employers, supervisors, suspicious when she can’t produce exact dates off the top of her head. Flustered and angry, she tells him it’s history anyway, now that she has the job at the college.

“Look, guys, I need to know where your income comes from. Art galleries, writing workshops, graphics. . . I mean, I wrote the paper last week on a guy who has oil royalties and real estate holdings. Yours is lots more complicated.”

I shrug. “Some of us don’t work nine to five. From what we hear on NPR, it’s the trend of the future — the part-timing and home-officing of America.”

Daryl looks at me blankly; he doesn’t listen to NPR. We’ve completely blown his expectation fuses. You grow up, get a job, have kids, grow old, and die. We’ve skipped stages two and three. If not outright seditious, we are some dicey existential conundrum seated before him. Why can’t I go down to the high school and get an honest teaching job? Our modest stock portfolio and willingness to put 20 percent down makes him even more suspicious. Where has the money come from? He ignores that we once had a mortgage from a bank in Upstate New York, in days before TrueHome thinking owned America. Exasperated, he leans back in his faux-leather chair. “Listen, guys, the underwriter has to know if you can make your payments.”

“Of course. We’re paying twice as much now in rent.”

Daryl’s eyes blink off such straightforward logic. He isn’t buying it.

He suggests we write a detailed letter about our employment situation and send him records of everything we’ve made and paid over the past two years to prove we are functional spending members of society. We leave his office feeling beaten up and illegitimate, having entered capitalist purgatory. (Nothing to what our friend Shauna had to go through to get a home loan; bad enough she was an artist; she was unmarried and had to prove the relationship with the man who lived with her was based on love not need. A mortgage of the heart.)

Next day Cowrie calls. Interest rates have dropped to 7.5 percent; do we want to lock in at that rate or float? We grab it. I begin sending documents to his secretary.

We pay a visit to a steel and glass monolith in Irvine: the experian (small “e”) universal credit watch agency, home-based in Allen, Texas. SUVs parked crooked in spaces out front; harried housewives roam hallways dragging kids behind them; a Chinese businessman wanders the lobby stunned, slamming his forehead with the heel of a hand and muttering; young couples enter with fear in their eyes. Kafka’s K. would find gratification here, finally coming to apprehend his crime. We are all guilty. Every one of us! Some overdue bill or bounced check. The sly, accusatory eyes of the clerks tell us as much. They demand payment in cash before processing credit reports, look bills over carefully to make sure they aren’t counterfeit Incredibly, my report shows no record of the New York oral surgeon. I flash the gen-X-perian clerk a grin. Then I see it “Credit Bureau South Bay, ORIGINAL AMOUNT $93. ORIGINAL CREDITOR: UN I LAB X. ’’The clerk grins back. Gotcha, dude! The international credit cops reach out a sumptuary hand from Allen, Texas.

Some months before, I’d gone in to a medical lab in Escondido to have blood drawn for a Dilantin blood level (I’m an epileptic). I thought it odd when the lab technician asked me if I had a heart condition. When I received the bill, I discovered the lab had run not a Dilantin level but a level for Digoxin, a heart medication. Either they’d misread the doctor’s prescription or he’d miswritten it. One of those medical errors we hear so much about lately. Both doctor and lab acknowledged the mistake. I returned for a Dilantin level and paid for it but refused payment for the error, wishing they’d get their act together.

Now I must spend days penetrating the layers of UNI-LAB’s bureaucracy-banks of automated voices, an occasional vagrant, ghostly human voice. I’m passed from billing officer to Delinquency Account Manager to Emergency Relief Credit Glitch Comptroller... until I reach Pete by way of Vivian.

Meanwhile, I fax Daryl’s secretary years of canceled rent checks, 1040 and W2 forms, bank statements, copies of book contracts. She dutifully acknowledges submissions and asks if we could prove, please, that our stocks were obtained through legal means and not....

“Not what?” I demand. “From drug earnings?”

“Oh no! We would never think.. .but the Underwriter back in New York—”

“Why are you whispering? Is she listening in?” “Heavens, no,” Cheryl says. “I mean, just...you know.. .to be on the safe side.” Pete is out this morning, Vivian tells me, but Allen has my file. “This was about your heart condition?” he asks.

“I don’t have a fucking heart condition.” The dogs jump at my feet (I’m not the ideal Akita owner; they prefer a calm emotional environment).

Finally, we get together: Vivian, Pete, Allen, Dr. P’s office manager, and me. All agree someone made a mistake, all agree the wrong lab test was run, all agree I am not at fault and shouldn’t have to pay. But someone must. Dr. P’s office manager wants to help me out. “But where will the money come from? You don’t expect Dr. P to pay out of pocket, do you?”

“Why not?”

All agree I’m unreasonable and likely unstable.

Cheryl commiserates. She’s had letters from Pete, Vivian, and the office manager. All acknowledge the mistake, no one accepts responsibility. She’s spoken to Credit Bureau South Bay, they are quite willing to expunge it from my record— as soon as they receive a check.

“So I’ll just pay, for crissake!”

“Oh no! No.. .that isn’t a good idea,” she whispers. “You don’t want the underwriter to think you’re delinquent in paying your bills.” I begin chewing on the phone cord.

Days tick by. Close of escrow approaches and no loan in sight.


Many in the arts feel the need for a still space from which to observe and create. Writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn moved to rural Connecticut for “peace and space.” He could best perform the role of “second government,” as he calls it, from that vantage, away from centers of government, culture, and commerce. When Faulkner wrote for the movies, he preferred being home in peaceful Oxford, Mississippi, to being in Hollywood Quieter Upstate New York and Connecticut zones are chock-full of writers: Mary Gordon, Francine Prose, William Styron, Robert Stone, Frederick Busch, William Kennedy. Fiction writer Steve Minot and his wife Ginny, a visual artist, split their time between Riverside and a great old farm house on the coast of Maine; poet Chris Buckley, chair of creative writing at Riverside, prefers to write at his place in Lompoc; poet William Pitt Root commutes weekly to teach in New York from Tucson, Arizona, where he lives and writes. If a spatial need, it is metaphysical. Elbow room for the muse.

There are for us, besides, Cindy’s pragmatic needs— room for her power tools, for table and easel space; it takes a small shed now to store her work.

Add to peace and space Poe’s rule for the short story economy. The artist should live as cheaply as possible. Work too much to support yourself, there’s no time for your own work. I want to get away from the freeway chase back to the life of the writer.

I happily contemplate Cowrie’s good-faith estimate — $450/month to own a place in Southern California! Teach just enough to eke by. I see it as a political act, our own small guerrilla assault on the bottom-line culture. Once we lived by that ethos, made a virtue of the inexpensive, unfinished, and unusual: the makeshift cabin I built in a redwood stump in the Mendocino woods; a chicken coop we refurbished in Little River (cold, damp mornings, a wood cookstove for heat); the 150-year-old fixer-upper we bought near Glens Falls in Upstate New York — hickory beams so hard you couldn’t drive a nail in, slate slipped off the steep roof and jumbled in a talus behind the tumble-down bam; we built a chimney and burned ten cords of wood a winter to stay warm.

SCENARIO: We sit in the unfinished studio, husband and wife, on afternoon coffee break. Cement floor littered with sawdust and gypsum scraps, pink-fiberglass insulation, metal “nickels” popped out of wiring slots in outlet boxes. We call it “the shed.” Structural work finished, newly wired, insulation up, walls mostly sheet-rocked, beginning to look like something. Fifteen feet by 40, concrete floor, windows all around. We guess it was once a bunkhouse for field hands. Someone scratched “1936” in charcoal on an exposed rafter. We are quietly satisfied with the work, jeans starched stiff from dried paint and spackling paste. My T-shirt could stand on its own in a corner. We sip coffee and relish the satisfaction of do-it-yourself nestmaking. Something root basic in it.

Biographer Joseph Blotner claims Faulkner was never so content as when replacing the joists under his house at Rowan Oaks. In his novel Manual Labor, Frederick Busch describes in loving detail the minutiae of house repair, caulking and installing screw jacks in the basement to straighten a beam; laying down tongue-in-groove flooring: “Crawling backward down the line of boards, he laid a nail in every four inches of wood.” His is the story of a married couple trying to hold their troubled marriage together after losing a child, finding solace in rebuilding an abandoned New England farmhouse. “You forget with your hands,” Busch writes. The farmhouse in Stephen Minot’s story “A Passion for History” could be a stand-in for his own in Maine: “It is a weathered gray. There is no electricity and water must be lifted bucketful by bucketful from an open welL” Half the plaster gone already, they remove the rest, “leaving the horizontal laths as semipartitions between the rooms.” Minot, who dug his own well, says he spends two hours a day working on his place summers in Maine. “There’s so much to keep up with in an old house.” Poet Earl Braggs slowly remodeled his North Carolina house room by room while living in it, a difficult shuffle. Nadine Gordimer vicariously works out her fascination with house repair in The Good Terrorist. The novel’s main character manages desultory repairs to “the squat,” an abandoned London house, while her fellow squatters discuss blowing up buildings. “Midnight, Alice slumped down the stairs, yawning, holding the sense of the house in her mind...everything that needed to be done.”

What correlation between writing and refurbishing an old house? It isn’t economic necessity alone that attracts writers to such work. Perhaps, in our sedentary occupation, we find the simple physicality of such work appealing, the physical joy of swinging a 20-ounce hammer, driving the nail in to its head. The hands-on practicality allows us “to forget” the desk for a time. In his intriguing work on the creative personality, The Dynamics of Creation, Anthony Storr discusses that “state of reverie” from which the artist creates. It isn’t a state we can maintain indefinitely. Mundane tasks, like house repair, may be a necessary vacation from the intense concentration of creativity, as Schopenhauer postulates humor is a vacation from “that stern mistress, reason.” But I suspect we also find a paradigm for our work there. “All the writer has to do is see with absolute clarity and vividness and describe without mistake exactly what he’s seen,” John Gardner writes in On Writers and Writing. Repairing an old house is a crash course in clarity and insight; every problem is novel — a door post eaten away by dry rot, window that won’t open. It trains us to see. Perhaps, moreover, we who work with metaphors feel a need to find metaphors for our work. As reality is analogized in the writing, so the writing must be analogized in reality.

I begin dreaming about houses, monstrous places with long corridors, walls stripped to bare studs, roofs in need of patching, stairways you can’t trust. I wander about dazed, hammer in hand. Every room a potential study. So much to be done. Is that the metaphor? The novelist wanders through his unfinished construction, checking the structure, concerned about getting the roof shingled before storms of entropy set in. Always building against the slow, sure, destructive forces of time.

It can get old: drywalling the shed ceiling, comers off square, jigs made to brace up sheetrock falling over, arms quaking as we hold up sheets with one hand and hammer with the other. Endless trips to Home Depot across town. Returning home from one late-afternoon trip, I find a plastic lawn chair pushed up under an open shed window, my toolbox and tools gone— hand planes, levels, squares, chisels, wood rasps, brace and bit...many remaining from the time 20 years ago when I made my living as a carpenter. Sneaker prints in the dust outside the open window, the shed exposed and vulnerable from the church parking lot; dogs shut up in the pen on the far side of the property. I feel sick at heart, foolish for leaving a window open. But this is Hemet, for crissake! At least the thief missed my circular saw and beloved hammer.

Neighbor Betty tells me she saw a teenage boy earlier on her walk carrying a green toolbox. Another boy asked where he’d gotten it, and he said, “My daddy give it to me.” Betty describes him as “skinny, dark-haired, and extremely homely.” George, who runs the halfway house for born-again ex-cons on the comer of Florida—and who looks like Friar Tuck strung out on acid — passes by as we talk. Betty asks him how he deals with unruly young men. “I ask them if they know the Lord,” he says, “and they generally split.” We put Betty’s description on handbills and post them around the neighborhood, knock on doors. We want word to go out: Mess with us, we’ll come looking for you. The tools can be replaced — if by ersatz plastic-handled replicas, functional but soulless—but we need to counter our sense of disillusionment. No punk kid is going to trash our dream of peace and space. Again, I’m getting ahead.


We enter coyote land, trickster territory. Each communication received from Cheryl or Orange County Title reveals another problem demanding immediate response.

— Preliminary Title Report describes the property: “That portion of Lots 4, 5, 6 and B Street of the town of Florida.” What is this? A latent street runs through our shed?

— Mystifying language about Mrs. L’s “Revocable Trust & Successors in Trust.” Meaning we may have to deal with Bumpy?

— The underwriter requests gas, phone, and electric bills, mutual funds statements, proof of where our funds originate. Believing the only artists are con artists.

We consider switching lenders but can’t fathom starting over. I fox Cheryl 80 pages of phone bills, 40 of electric. Schtooling assures us B Street was abandoned decades ago with speculators’ plans for a putative town named “Florida.” A lawyer friend suggests we secure a copy of the vacation document from the title company. The “Order ofVacation” from the Riverside County Board of Supervisors verifying that B Street has been “vacated and abandoned” is quixotically dated 25 March, 1924, and 19 June, 1945. Attached to it are Honorable Discharge papers from the U.S. Army for Jesus M. Ramirez, Pfc. Former owner? Resident ghost?

Late January, deep in escrow territory and still no mortgage. A termite inspector named Crow discovers an infestation on the back porch. But a “reliable home inspector” assures us the house is in good shape. Only after he fails to send us a copy of his report do we begin having doubts about “reliable.” Caveat emptor!

Schtooling’s law: One problem is always supplanted by a larger one.

Two weeks before closing, the UNILAB credit glitch is mysteriously resolved. But the appraiser values house and property below our offering price. He can Find no “comparables,” Schtooling says. The few older farm houses recently sold in the area are either in poor repair or have more land attached. Many buyers would bail out at this point, afraid of being stuck with a lemon. But I am adamant. “Of course there aren’t ‘comparables.’ No deal could be this good. What does some idiot appraiser know of the value of outbuildings to an artist? Peace and space? We’ve already named the place Chinaberry Farm.”

“Yes,” Schtooling agrees with me, “yes, certainly.” We’re stretched to the limit, strung out on loan-applicant burnout. There’s Cindy’s new job, shows she’s curating, shows of her own work, my teaching, and marathon attempt to finish last chapters of a novel and long-overdue article before moving, readings for the American Fiction anthology, trips out to the place, Cheryl’s endless requests for more information, dogs freaking out on our nervous energy. Chaos no longer a theory but a way of life. TrueHome demands a larger down payment to cover the shortfall. No problem; we can sell drugs or child pornography. I have begun dreaming in lists; I tote figures in my head all night long — questions to ask Escrow, expenses, repairs, things to check out on the property.. .lists of lists to keep it all straight. I can no longer sleep unless I’m anxious.

Then the well water tests positive for coliform (though negative for E. coli). Likely some bit of contamination that got in when the pump was replaced; it can be treated. Mrs. L is outraged. “We’ve been drinking that water for years.” (Maybe it explains Bumpy.) Days before closing, Cheryl calls to congratulate us on having a mortgage. ”If the well thing works out, you know. The underwriter is going to take a risk on you.” What risk?

Mandatory disclosure reports arrive: Local Seismic Hazard Zone — yes. Don Stuefloten points out where the San Jacinto Fault crosses Florida Street about two clicks west of the property. (All those cracks in the basement walls!) Flood Hazard Zone (hundred-year flooding) — yes. (All the snow melting off mountains at once? The San Jacinto River a mile to the northeast.) Tsunami Inundation Area — no. (Always some good news.) Moving is an act of faith. How can you know a teenage bombmaker isn’t living next door or mice carrying Lhasa fever don’t live in the basement or a poltergeist in the back closet? How can you know that a church youth ministry down the road brings in Christian rock bands on weekends? That dirt bikers will invade nearby fields? That septic tank leach lines are inadequate? Or when the well will run dry?


I stand here watering, never sure how much plants need in this thirsty place, how much will empty our well. The air cool and sweet, mountains to the north and east, ground squirrels stand beside burrows in the empty field across the road watching me. Hundreds of feet beneath us, a great aquifer holds dwindling reserves of winter snow melt from the mountains; it hasn’t rained in months. I’ve read about the 1946-’48 drought that dried up local wells. But well driller Ron Engledinger, who installed our pump, assures me that we should never have a water problem, given our proximity to the underground San Jacinto River and deep sand aquifer beneath us. We are pumping water from 40 feet down into a 225-gallon tank designed for light irrigation at a flow rate of 20 gallons per minute, plenty for our needs. Since Engledinger’s arrival in the valley in ’58 there has always been water.

Still, Georgiana, from the olive farm down the road, has discouraged me from planting a lawn. We could do designer gravel or spray-paint it green as in modular home tracts hereabouts. On dry August days, mercury hovering at 115, you hear a high-pitched whine nearly out of the range of human hearing, which neighbor Betty says is grass screaming. But Betty regularly sees angels sitting on her car hood. Conversations with her over the fence begin with small talk about our dogs or her husband’s health, then zing off into loony land.

True believers surround us on all sides: Truth Tabernacle next door, Christian halfway house for ex-convicts up on Florida, near Masjid of Hemet, Calvary Chapel’s ministry for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics next to House of Luke’s youth camp down on Palm — cabins once used as a summer retreat by the town’s doctors. Tattooed, quasi-menacing men stump past our place in small boisterous bands, heads shaved, Bibles under arms, like the Lord’s storm troopers. Neighborly in their way. The night our dogs got loose, preacher George from the halfway house took them in. I once saw a fellow leap from a pickup another car had hit in a Hemet parking lot and shout, “Thank you, Jesus.” A bumper strip on his truck warned: “In case of rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned.”

I plant “drought resistant” fescue grass seed in small fenced plantations to protect seedlings from the dogs. An ongoing project: dig, add soil supplements, plant, fence, water. I love the shy saffron green of new grass spiking above the surface. Tiny parks fill into lush golf greens, then slowly die. Nurserymen suggest I may be underwatering or overfertilizing, or that herbicides worked in over decades are poisoning the grass. One suggests I plant Kentucky blue-grass; fescue is too delicate to thrive in adobe hard-clay soil Bob next door says he just watered the scruff at his place and it became lush turf. Our lawn strangely migrates: patches of bright green appear and disappear in ever-changing mosaic. Grass dies out where I have seeded and sprouts where I haven’t. I conclude that grass does not thrive on water, kindness, and X-16 alone. Knowing in its wise organic way of our transient past, it wants to make sure we are fully settled in before rooting. Here in the desert grass needs reliable caretakers.

Finding enough water through mercilessly hot, dry summers has been a perennial problem in the San Jacinto Valley. Cahuilla Indians, the valley’s first inhabitants, depended on the San Jacinto River and creeks in mountain canyons. Early European settlers watered their livestock in the cienaga marsh, which always held water. In the northeast part of the valley, Valle Vista, and San Jacinto, artesian wells sometimes gushed water into the air. They are long gone now. In 1886, San Francisco millionaire W.F. Whittier saw the potential for development if 10,987-foot Mt. San Jacinto’s watershed could be tapped. Whittier formed the Lake Hemet Water Company and constructed the Hemet Dam to form Lake Hemet, 4000 feet up in the San Jacinto Mountains. A system of flumes, pipes, canals, and distributing reservoirs transported water to the valley below. By 1906 Hemet prospered as a farm community, farmers raised apricots, peaches, olives, citrus, and walnuts. By the 1960s orchards were being tom out for the current crop of houses and retirement villages. Early settlers write of a palm-tree oasis in the shadow of dramatic mountains, acres of apricot blossoms in the spring, clattering wagons bringing logs down switchbacks from forests around Idyllwild. They talk, too, of severe droughts alternating with floods. Even today, rivers course down east-/west-running streets when it rains; cars stall in lakes of dirty, roiling water at intersections.

The history of our own homestead, before Mrs. L. bought it 15 years ago, must be stitched together from remnants. The property dead-center of the putative town site of “Florida,” laid out in the 1880s but abandoned when the railroad spur stopped five miles west in Hemet. A few English settlers were attracted to the area by bogus ads run in London papers, which showed a large boat navigating the “beautiful San Jacinto River” but failed to mention that the river is dry 90 percent of the year.

Well-driller Ron Engledinger speculates that early owners of our place grew apricots and walnuts, as most did in Valle Vista. The house was built in 1943, trees appear older. Olive trees lining the road are likely leavings of a former grove. There is evidence of irrigation: a half-buried concrete culvert once carried water to fields and orchards; a boxy well lining juts out of the ground under a Christmas berry bush near the current well house; mysterious capped pipes protrude from the earth here and there. I haven’t opened them for fear the past will come spewing up out of the ground.

Much evidence remains of the farming life once lived here: a tumbledown aviary off the fenced garden, grease pit in the bam for repairing farm equipment, primitive swamp cooler mounted high on an outside wall of the shed — a squirrel cage blew air in through a rattan mesh over which water trickled. And the cozy farmhouse touches: kitchen cabinets large enough to store grain sacks, tin-lined flour and sugar drawers, pull-out chopping board, a pie cooler cupboard vented to the outside, a 12- x 12-foot brick-lined root cellar with a vented door in the basement (which Cindy has remade into a study), facing doors lead off the living room for cross-ventilation on summer evenings, the screened front porch.

Fiction writer Don Stuefloten grew up in Hemet and talks of family orchards once occupying what is now the center of town. Driving through town at night in the ’50s, he says, they cut headlights and ignored stop signs (some still do). Don has refurbished the garage of the house his father built on Buena Vista Street into a personal cathedral; life-sized papier-mache-femme-fatale figures jut from sculpted walls; big-breasted nudes carved into adobe walls; snakes twine about pillars, terra cotta patio, grapevines, and pomegranate trees. From a sunken darkroom in back you enter a secret walled courtyard. After spending much of his adult life traveling the world, Don lives here now, surrounded by his photographs, Mayan masks, homemade bicycles, and books. Though he still makes winter pilgrimages to Mexico, where he does his best writing. “This damned country is too sterile.” Something about these backs of beyond, mountain and desert places, feeds the thorny individualism that was once highly valued in this country.


Mrs. L. and Bumpy preside existentially over the chaos of buying. Mrs. L complains about all she has to do. Bumpy comes and goes, repairing roofs, hauling trash. We meet him face to face only once. Tiny black eyes smolder above round, beard-stubbled cheeks. His girlfriend Tina’s teeth set as if she fears we will say the wrong thing. Mrs. L. speaks as if he’s not present, telling us what a help he is to her when he’s not on drugs. I try to find some place to park my eyes. “He’s sure going to miss his barn,” Mrs. L. says.

“Yeah.” Bumpy’s eyes bump hard at me, knowing we plan to take it away from him.

So it is we enter the final surreal zone of property exchange:

2/1: Bumpy disappears, gone off with some men in a low, dark car. Mrs. L. fears they mean him harm. “Drugs,” Schtooling whispers. But I suspect he’s hiding out in the barn. P. 2. Clause 7: Any personal property left on premises after the close of escrow shall become the buyer's property. If we don’t sign papers on time, we forfeit the place. If we do, we may be buying a contaminated well, an under-appraised house, Bumpy and his drug debts.

2/6: We arrive at the Orange County Tide office in San Jacinto, cashier’s check in hand, to sign papers — beside the orange Xs: escrow amendments, disclosure reports, deed of trust, note to pay at 7.5 percent, mortgage certification — baffled by prorations, prepayments, impounds on fire and hazard insurance and property taxes, “funds held for extra if needed.” We wonder if the shed roof and water pipes in the basement will be repaired; trash, animals, and sons off the property. Closing still contingent upon the well water checking out.

2/7: Treated well tests negative for coliform, but the heterotrophic plate count is up. A lab technician at Babcock & Sons explains that this may indicate the presence of beasties that feed on organic matter. Some wells, she says, have HP counts into the thousands. I don’t find this reassuring.

2/11: Close of Escrow, Real, actually real.

Let me be fair. There are signs that Mrs. L is preparing to leave when we arrive to take possession, boxes stacked in the living room. With Tina’s help, she is transporting things to the coast in her Cadillac. Distracted, hand-wringing, Mrs. L tells us she hates to leave the place, she’s worried sick about Bumpy. I hear country-western music coming from the barn; Tina slides me a look. What’s going on? Annoyed and distracted, I scarcely notice Schtooling loading a pitchfork and other antique farm tools into his pickup. Only later do I realize they rightfully belong to us. Buyer beware.

“Don’t former owners typically leave a house after selling it?” I ask.

“Oh, she’s going,” Schtooling insists. “The exact date a place changes hands is often a gray zone.” Mrs. L. is encamped inside, we’re outside, Schtooling moves back and forth as an emissary between us. “Be reasonable,” he says. “She’s an elderly woman, her son’s in trouble, she hoped to have his help.”

“Do you think she understands that we own the house now?” Cindy asks him.

“I think so. She’s just a little overwhelmed at the reality that she must vacate. I’m sure Bumpy will turn up in a few days. She’ll be out by end of the week.”

“End of the week! We’ve given our landlord notice. There’s a lot to do here before we can move in.”

“She’s elderly, for goodness sake. Don’t you people have any heart?”

“She’s known for months she had to be out today. Crissake, George, we’ve closed. She’s squatting on our property!”

Not like we’re throwing her out on the street; she has a house on the coast. Elderly or not, she’s canny as a goat, making us out as assholes for asking her to leave our property. I see where Bumpy got his genes. We give her 24 hours.

Next day, unable to reach Schtooling, the phone at the house disconnected, we arrive with a van load of things hoping to start cleaning up. I catch a flash of Bumpy’s Bon-doed pickup turning onto Palm. Mrs. L’s gold Cadillac sits in the drive beside mounds of trash. Tina runs out to greet us. “We’re moving a little slow this morning.” Seems they’ve made no progress at all. Schtooling’s pickup roars into the drive. “Lighten up,” he insists. “It’s not doing anyone any good to be pushy.”

“We want to get into our new house. How long is it going to be?”

“We’re trying to find homes for the dogs and all,” Tina says.

Mrs. L. stands aside wringing her hands. It devolves to a shouting match. We take Schtooling aside: Look, there’s a family history here.... Yes, he realizes. Compromising angel Tina promises to move things out; she will chain and lock the gate behind them when they leave that evening. “Wooh! Serious,” she says when I hand her the heavy-duty padlock.

On the phone next morning, Mrs. Schtooling tells me she doesn’t believe they’re out yet. I ask her to remind her husband of the clause in our contract providing that any personal property remaining on the property after close of escrow becomes the buyer’s. “If her Cadillac is still there when I arrive in two hours, I’m taking possession of it” My tone alarms me. When I arrive Mrs. L. is gone, the place empty. Property makes monsters of us all.


Distant howls, wild, frenetic yips rising to crescendo as coyotes corner a rabbit or neighborhood cat. Castrati with muzzles to the moon. Magical and spooky. We stand in the yard listening, Millie and Butch silent, ears straight up, that feral opera all around us, one aria building on the last, like the mad choirboys in Lord of the Flies. Enclosed in that ring of ambient hysteria, the prey panics, runs blindly about Sudden silence. The pack has made its kill. Neighborhood dogs continue barking long after.

Add plaintive hoots of great horned owls (a pair lives in the fir tree out front), barn owls’ screeches (occasionally, we see one napping out the day in branches of an olive tree, wise, Buddhalike, unperturbed by dunning black birds), Georgiana’s cockatoos’ shrieking plaints at sunset, base rhythms that occasionally invade the house from Christian rock concerts at the Calvary Chapel youth camp on Palm. When I pull up in the pickup at 1:00 a.m. to complain, they tell me they are being loud for Jesus, keeping kids off drugs. I ask which scriptural text requires followers disturb the peace. Regularly, with neighbors Gwyn and Bob, we summon the sheriff to complain about rowdy church groups. Some irony there? We’d thought an evangelical church would make a quiet neighbor, but the place rocks Sunday afternoons, voices belting, hands clapping, kids run screaming about the church parking lot after services. But I'm getting ahead.

I change locks first thing—though Mrs. L. has assured us Bumpy has no keys—unload the van, trigger flea foggers, and rush back to the coast to teach. So begins an exhausting two-month marathon of back and forth from the coast to Hemet, working nearly full-time, spending three-day weekends cleaning, scraping wallpaper, painting, making repairs, hauling trash. We eat takeout and sleep on a mat on the floor, discover termites, earwig hordes, dry rot, foxtails that work into the dogs’ paws, two-foot gopher mounds under waist-high weeds. We rush to pack up and get out of the San Marcos place. The dogs have gone high-strung and edgy. We tear deep ruts in the rain-softened lawn getting the U-Haul up to the front porch.

The dislocation of moving has been compared to divorce. Disconnected from what we’re accustomed to, we suffer existential agoraphobia. To compound the anxiety of dislocation, we often pester ourselves with resolutions and urgent plans, looking to find a new beginning in our new locus. My own plans stretch off toward the mountains: refurbish shed, plant grass, trees, build fence along church side, install rain gutters, repair basement cracks, redo utility room, rewire basement, refurbish barn (later), build shelves in study closet, rehang closet doors, new drapes, sprinkler system in, cistern to collect rain water, solar collectors, small orchard on the northwest comer, cactus garden....

Moving is especially traumatic for children and the old; it becomes progressively more difficult with age. We are a territorial beast, we find comfort in staying put. Even status in our society is measured by how often a person must relocate. Those who move most frequently—soldiers and the homeless — are the most imperiled. There is safety in stasis. I am most vulnerable to grand mal seizures at times I am relocating. No time for them now.

No end in sight even by summer. Forced to put art work and writing aside for months, we feel unstable, blown in the wind. Half our belongings still packed in the barn, paths form a quotidian maze between stacked boxes. The house livable, anyway, though windows painted shut, drawers won’t open. A rat takes up residence in Cindy’s paintings stored in the utility room. Bumpy begins hanging out at a neighbor’s. There is the one-and-a-half-hour commute to teach in San Diego. The AC goes out during triple-digit days in July. Our home warranty doesn’t cover it. Insurance companies exist to collect money, not pay it out.

But we’re making progress. House painted, basement office in, shed wired, insulated, dry-walled, painted.. .becomes a studio. There’s the proprietary satisfaction that comes in such work, the satisfaction of owning our own. Cool, soulful evenings, owl hoots, coyotes’ baroque choruses of predation all sides. I mark up gopher kills on the side of the barn (96 by this writing). With less to dig for, the dogs stop digging. The San Jacinto River wash, not a quarter mile from the place, seems our own private Idaho — but dry.

Time’s inertia settles in fast, like dusk in November. We reach that point where we must fully arrive and begin living a life again. Unfinished as things are, we must move beyond the limbo of relocation and get back to work: me to a novel set aside six months ago, Cindy to paintings for a show. Yes, peace and space.

I become acquainted with Reverend Dwayne over the fence. Learning I am a writer, he tells me his life story. He is pleased to know Cindy paints, has tried a bit himself (surely not her frontal nudes and in-your-face imagery). Taking to heart Robert Frosts maxim, “Good fences make good neighbors,” we whitewash studio windows facing the church. One day Dwayne calls for us to come see the four-foot rattler he nearly stepped on coming out of the church. “Isn’t that something,” he says, “the devil on our doorstep.” Some months later, a visitor staying in an RV in the church parking lot accuses us of being sent by Satan when we go over to ask if his children could play away from our fence line. “My children won’t bother you,” he insists. I tell him they are bothering us. He becomes belligerent and threatens to “deck” Cindy. When I ask him to back off, he shoves me, red-faced, gesticulating, quoting Paul about how men shouldn’t dress like women (my ponytail). “You’re trash,” he says.

“You’re a holy blimp,” Cindy calls back at him as we walk away.

Anxieties never materialize as we expect. Bumpy doesn’t return, nor do thieves, but termites return to the back porch; we doubt they were exterminated in the first place. As I write, the septic has backed up, leach lines likely clogged. “They’re supposed to flow-test it to see if the septic’s handling the input,” the plumber tells us. “A lot of guys don’t do it.” Buyer beware. We wonder if the septic was ever inspected. The lawn has entered another of its die-off phases, not yet trusting me.

But we have found kindred spirits here: artists, writers, dancers, potters who’ve escaped the clotted zones for their own peace and space, people of many achievements. Not since England have we found it so easy to meet people. The town’s very name, some say, derives from the Swedish hemmet, meaning “in the home.” Anthropologist Kroeber thought it could derive from the Luisefto Shoshonean Jemet, meaning “corn valley” (other sources say “acom valley”). Or perhaps from the Anglo-Saxon prefix “hem,” equivalent of “ham” (hamlet), meaning “hemmed in.” “Home” implicit, anyway, in all its putative meanings.

Home is where your friends are. Home is where your heart is. Home is where you hang your hat. Those many homilies. Home is where you hang out. What makes us feel at home in a place? The passage of time? A sense of belonging? T rouble weathered? It takes a full cycle of seasons for me to get my bearings. It helps to grow a garden, as we did this spring—growing your own tomatoes is one of the three unimpeachable adult pleasures, along with serendipitous sex and tax refunds — to lay your hand on the place, marking it as a dog does its territory, to establish small rituals—sitting with morning coffee on the small patio facing Mt. San Gorgonio — to bring in small, quixotic gifts: a sign found at the Del Mar Fain “Akita on Duty.” It helps me to be working well again and enjoying the work. Home is a work in progress.

For the writer, home is that place from which we can observe, where distractions are at a minimum. Where, by whatever strange chemistry the muse works, we feel compelled by the human and natural landscape. And comfortable. For one it may be the way the morning sun strikes the window sill, for another it is the way it paints the hills. Yesterday, on a hike in Big Morongo Canyon, a friend said, “You’re beginning to like this landscape, aren’t you?” I replied, “It’s not nearly so barren as it appears from a distance.”

Hemet, whatever its name means, seems home waiting for us. This geriatric ward, God’s country, place where cops stop you for no good reason, where thousands of gopher reinforcements wait in the fields, and ground squirrels feast on our green tomatoes, where we are shot at on a walk. True writer’s territory. Real life is lived here—among dirt bikers and trailer trash, skin-itch dryness and perpetual drought, coyotes and rattlesnakes. Peace and space. Away from the freewaynet-hyperlinked-fastforward life where everything, even the air molecules, comes individually plasti-wrapped and sanitized. There’s dirt out here: real dirt Lots of it Occasionally painted green, but paint soon flakes off and flies away. You actually say hello to people passing them on a walk. Imagine that.

True, the neighborhood is changing, becoming younger, lumpen proletariat. As retirees die, their bungalows sell to starter families and dirt bikers (more of them these days in the wash). It is California, after all, the demographics of constant flux. But there’s hope it will remain a real place — unlike Temecula to the west, which I must pass through commuting to teach at State; blink, another hillside covered in staple-together houses, Big Box special event, fucking yuppie theme park...hopefully, a containable cancer.

Home is where you hang your hopes. Always becoming, never finished. No fence or hedge up yet along Truth Tabernacle property, no permanent storage for Cindy’s paintings, bathroom unfinished. But it’s all there in the mind’s eye. Not unlike the novel conceived, you must get in and live it awhile, throw up a few walls, knock down others, before you know it’s a space you can fully inhabit.

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