“By whom or by what had I been impelled to disrupt the normal course of my existence?” asked French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1955 as he struggled to understand cultures in the Amazon rainforests. I asked myself a similar question last week when my wife and I flew to Los Angeles to spend a few days with our son, daughter-in-law, and two-year-old granddaughter. Their house is thirty miles (seventy minutes by car) north of the Los Angeles airport—LAX in airport code, though anything but reLAXing. For a person from the Lowcountry, California can feel as foreign as the upper reaches of the Amazon did to Lévi-Strauss. Being there, even over a long weekend, requires adjustment.
My first afternoon, needing some air, I took a walk around the neighborhood. Our kids’ house is on a hill steeper than any natural or man-made elevation east of the Appalachians. Take a right out the front door, walk a few dozen steps, and you’ll be breathing like you just completed a 5-K personal best; go left and be careful not to trip and fall or you’ll roll half a block downhill, ending up in a yard of stone, cacti, and other fat succulents. Grass doesn’t do well here; those who insist on a green lawn install Astroturf, which they sweep rather than mow. It’s a quiet walk except for the occasional squawk of a magpie or the constant, low background hum, which is not the existential “ohm” but the ever-present noise from the nearby freeway.
We drove one afternoon through impressive, rocky hills to a park at Malibu Beach, where our granddaughter likes to climb and slide on playground equipment. While there I watched a shirtless guy, maybe eighty years old, doing pullups on a bar erected for that purpose. Around us in a long, asphalt loop whizzed younger men on electric scooters, seeming to imagine they were getting exercise. Later, down the beach at the busy Malibu pier, we mingled among people speaking half a dozen languages—I made out English, Spanish, Japanese, Vietnamese, either German or Dutch (the guy mumbled), and one or two others. Prices frequently caught my attention. Parking for an hour at the pier cost fifteen dollars; the lowest-grade gasoline was five dollars a gallon; and a bottle of “Two-Buck Chuck,” the wine known since 2002 for costing two dollars a bottle, was $3.99. Our son says that for his house, which is a bit larger than ours but has a smaller yard, he pays one and one-half times more in property taxes in a month than we pay in a year. Of course, the nearby public school is top-notch.
As for coming and going, flying is different from what I remember from my youth, not to mention from what cousin Orville experienced back in 1903, when he remained in the air all of twelve seconds. Dress for flying is more casual than it used to be. No longer does one see high heels and wingtips; now, it’s lots of uncared-for feet in flip-flops. Jeans and sweatpants are the norm, too. One maybe-eighteen-year-old woman had on shorts so brief that I could view parts of her anatomy that I had no wish to see. I got a sense that whatever money women under forty were saving on attire for the flight they were spending on dark eye shadow and fake lashes so long they had to wear their eyeglasses at the ends of their noses.
And haven’t cell phones blurred the long-respected line between public and private information? In the Los Angeles airport, as we awaited our (delayed) flight home, a man sitting next to me held long and loud conversations with medical personnel and family members about his brother, who the day before had suffered heart failure during a pickleball contest. I didn’t know whether to express my sympathy, which would have been civil, or to keep my mouth shut so as not to divulge that I’d heard every word of his conversation, as had a dozen others sitting around us.
Conversations differed as we awaited a connecting flight (also delayed) at the Denver Airport—DEN in the code, though not resembling anything I remember from Cub Scouts—where across from me a balding guy wearing slick gray pants, thin-soled loafers, Blue Tooth in ear, showed everyone nearby that he could mix metaphors better than good bartenders mix daiquiris:
“Bobby, it’s the whole nine yards. None of this half-a-loaf stuff.”
“Gino’s on board. I said he had to get with the program, take care of the nuts and bolts. He read my lips.”
“Nope. Not taking that route again. We do it cost-plus or we don’t do it.”
“Barry needs to massage the numbers, but it’ll fit. He’s all over Accounting,”
“Yeah, Jeremy’s interview was golden. I need to run him by Barry and Chuck, but he’s the real thing. A self-starter. Brings a lot to the table.”
“No, Bobby, no. Now, hey, let me share this with you. Your ears only. Kleinbeard’s over the hill. On his way out. Productivity’s down, alcohol consumption up. He was clueless at the Phoenix show. Didn’t have his samples; didn’t know the product. Having him on the road isn’t worth the Marriott points.”
Suddenly, an announcement about another flight delay, this one related to “thunderstorms at your intended destination,” jarred me loose from the conversation. My situation of not arriving in Charleston until after midnight and having to drive on to Beaufort in the wee morning hours paled in comparison to poor Kleinbeard’s. Wherever he was, I was hoping somebody might buy him a drink.
We got home at 3:45 a.m. and, ignoring the crackling serenade of tree frogs, slept like babies.