Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why I Love LA or Comments from a Culture Vulture

I left my riotous household tonight and headed west, to UCLA's Royce Hall. I had bought tickets to a Writers' Series and tonight was the first and it was John Updike. Yes, the great man of letters himself, in conversation with David Ulin (the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review and a wonderful writer, as well). It took me what seemed like forever to drive to the west side, making my way through traffic and driving into the sun. No matter how many times I go to UCLA (Sophie's doctors, at least ten writing workshops and more than I can count concerts and discussions), I always, always get lost. When I finally found my way to Parking Structure 4, I was caught up in a long line of cars waiting to get in to park and go to the first basketball game. All this set-up set me on edge and since I was going to the talk alone, I felt, well, lonely.

But when I emerged from the parking deck I was right below an enormous stairway that I had somehow missed all the other times I'd been at Royce Hall. When I climbed up and turned around, the sky was big and open and halfway dark, lit by urban light. The campus was spread all over, swaths of stadium-lit green, gorgeous towers back lit and the scurrying of people with backpacks.

I loved college. Absolutely loved every minute of it. And not just the books and the learning but the whole collegiate thing. The halls and the quads and the big trees and the falling leaves and the grand library with the old, wizened man who rang a cowbell as he walked through the stacks at closing time. My Alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was particularly collegiate but even UCLA, all spread out and airy with palm tree silhouettes and 80 degree November weather evokes that excitement that I guess for me is literary.

And here I was standing in a sweater in late November in balmy Los Angeles getting ready to see John Updike, the quintessential Ivy League don. I had seats in the middle of the third row and saw the lines of his aquiline nose and every wrinkle of his aged, earnest face. He walked out with a smile and sat down in a ridiculous red velvet armchair, or rather arranged his extraordinarily thin legs and arms and torso in it. David Ulin sat in the other and they began to talk. Updike speaks like he writes -- a strange and wonderful amalgamation of proper English and common talk. He is at once charming and just this side of condescending. He is aged and apparently both amused and terrified by mortality. I sat mesmerized by his soft voice and the way his fingers traced the air. He has incredibly long, thin fingers and moved his hands in the air as if he were spinning an awkward web. I have only recently read the Rabbit books and find his writing elevated and proper but almost effortlessly vulgar as well. And he is a working writer and really never stopped talking about that. How his goal was always to be in print, a novel every other year and in between articles and essays and criticism. It really takes this writer's breath away.

I'm not embarrassed to say that it was all enthralling. He had enthusiastic things to say about Obama -- his intelligence, his ability to think and write -- and as I walked back to Parking Structure 4 I couldn't help but think that John Updike's opinion mattered to me in ways more than, well, my parents. And that sort of embarrassed me.

Such is my infatuation with The Writer.

So why else do I love LA? Because I went to see John Updike on a balmy November evening on a beautiful college campus. Because I drove home through Beverly Hills, past the Ferrari and Lamborghini show rooms and clusters of paparazzi at the corner of Doheny and Wilshire. Because the palm trees along Little Santa Monica Blvd. were already draped with lit snowflakes. Because on the seat next to me was John Updike's newest novel, signed on the title page in a beautiful learned script.

And because on Monday I'm going downtown to the Japanese Theatre to hear Toni Morrison.


  1. I'm with you--there is nothing better than a balmy Los Angeles night and some ass-kicking writers. And David Ulin? Love him!

  2. There has never been a place that I romanticized so much in my imagination as Los Angeles. I only briefly had a chance to live high up in the desert in the early 80's when I was stationed at George Air Force Base, but every weekend and every chance I got, I was driving down Cajon Pass and looking for those magical places and moments that had loomed large in my New England Yankee imagination forever. It is the only place where the reality actually went beyond imagination. There's something about the California dream...

  3. Between you and Laura's blog I packing it in and moving back, what was I thinking.

  4. I haven't been to California since 1989, but like Lisa, I do tend to romanticize parts of California, especially Venice Beach in L.A. and the North Beach of S.F. during the Beat era. I've been known to watch the beginning of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" just to see Venice before so much of it was razed.

    There is something wonderful about being able to see someone like Updike. When I lived in Chicago and Philadelphia, there were such opportunities, but work was generally in the way. In 2000, I was able to take my daughter Sarah, then 15, to hear Ferlinghetti read in Chicago. She's now working on an MFA in poetry at Maryland.

  5. wow, what an evening. and your next one sounds great too!

    i was a terrible student. but i loved college. for all things you described here. i still get that longing when i walk the city campus here even though it's so very different from my own in VA.

    if they could make a town feel like a college, i would move there in an instant.

  6. Oh how I adored college - for all your reasons and more. This night sounds perfect.

    Your description of LA makes me detest Dallas even more. I didn't think that was possible ;-) Em

  7. wow, this says a lot about you. How do you feel now about Obama?

    Maybe you should have listened to your parents, sounds like they knew right.

    If Obama is proven to be the fool he looks like, will your children recgonize Rush Limbaugh knew more than you, and go listen to him speak at UCLA on warm Fall days?



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