Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Father Land (Part I)

This one's coming in pieces. At least two.


The older I get, the more often my father calls me. Mostly, his goal is to check in. At least once a year, it's to share with me a discovery that's changed his life. “I tell you, I've been looking for something like this,” he'll say. “It's given me a new perspective on just about everything.” The list includes lasers, chiropractic neurology, exercise, men's groups, and even retirement.

My father's latest phone call is a mixed bag. But thematically speaking, it doesn't stray too far from the norm. “It's hard for me to admit this, because I'm supposed to be 'the doctor.' I'm supposed to have it together.” My father goes on to explain that he's made some bad investments, his mortgage is upside down, and his home is about to go into foreclosure. “So Laura and I...” He means his wife. “...are taking a trip to find a new place to live. I tell you, it's kind of freeing. We're just leaving the house and starting over.”

“But isn't that a bad thing?” I ask. “I mean, won't the bank come after you?”

“What's the worst they can do? Ruin my credit? I'm sixty-five years old. What do I need good credit for?”

The next phone call comes to tell me he's in Idaho. “We passed through here fourteen years ago when you were just a kid,” he says. “It's called Sandpoint. You remember?”

“Not really,” I admit.

“My father explains that he and his wife have fallen in love with the place. “We've put an offer on a house.”

“With what money?”

“Oh, Laura inherited a little something when her father passed away. In any case, I'll let you know by the end of the week if the offer goes through.”

My father doesn't phone again until he's back in my hometown. He asks for phone numbers of some of my childhood friends. “Any of them need extra cash? We've got a lot of packing to do and I could sure use some help.”

“So you bought the house?” I ask even though the evidence is right before me.

“Oh, it's beautiful,” he says. “We're up in the mountains, away from everyone, with a view that looks out over the lake.”

“Sounds great,” I tell him.

“And you know what I decided?”

“What's that?”

“I'm not gonna renew my license.” My father is a chiropractor, and he runs an online supplement business on the side. “I've had this dream for a while now of quitting my practice. I haven't seen a patient in nearly two weeks, and let me tell you, I don't miss it one bit.”

“So what are you gonna do for money?” I ask him.

“Hopefully the website keeps up. I'll do some consulting here and there for people who want to listen. But I'm tired of most of these people. I come to them with gold, and they go, 'Eh.'”

“Well, it sounds like you've got it figured out.”

“Laura and I don't need much. We'll live simply. Ride our bikes, play with the dogs. What do we need a bunch of money for?”

More phone calls trickle in over the next few months. My father tells me that he's tired of packing, or tired of unpacking, and he reiterates how nice it is not to see patients.

Then one day, he calls with a proposal. “I was wondering if you'd like to come visit us next week. You're sister, Milla, will be here.” He's referring to one of the many children he's spawned or taken on through marriage. “We've got some extra United Airlines miles, and I'd love for you to see the new place.”

“Listen,” I say. “I'm about to shoot my next spec commercial, and I've already booked some work.”

“Ah,” he replies. “I just thought it would be nice for you to experience my new home, get out of the city. See something new.”

“I'm sure it would be.”

“Well, when do you think you'd have time to come visit?”

I tell him that I'll get back to him, but inevitably he calls first. We agree on a weekend late in September, and he books me a flight. “What's your email address?” he asks, so he can forward the itinerary. He tells me it's written down, but I get three more phone calls asking the same question.

“Did Papa call you about going up to Idaho?” I ask my younger brother. Our father is from Germany, so we've been trained to call him “Papa” instead of “Dad.”

“Yeah, but I'm coaching soccer. We have practice on week nights and tournaments on weekends. The longest I could leave is maybe a day.”

“I totally understand,” I say. “Was just hoping I wouldn't be up there by myself. Not sure what I'm gonna do with Papa and Laura the whole time.”

“Yeah, I don't know.”

“He talk to you about Christmas?” For the majority of our lives, our parents have lived within thirty minutes of each other. We've always spent Christmas Eve at our father's and Christmas Day with our mother. This is the first year we'll have to think of something else.

“He says we can do Christmas whenever we want. Still seems...”

“Complicated.” I finish the sentence for him.


“So how are the kids?”


“You're still coaching ten-and-unders, right?”

“Oh. Good. We've won two games so far, and they were both teams we lost to last season.”

“Cool,” I say. “And everything else?”

“It's alright, I guess. Probably need to get another job soon.”

“You're not still growing?”

“I am. And harvest season's coming up. But everyone grows up here. It's hard to get rid of too much, or at least make money doing it.”

“You should hang around the local middle school.”

My brother laughs. “Yeah, I probably should.”

“Well, if you want to make the trip, I'm sure I could get some LA kids to buy something.”

“That would actually be cool.”

“So I guess I won't see you that soon?”

“Not in Idaho,” he answers.

My flight leaves LAX at 6am, so I don't sleep the night before. Just on the plane.

There's a layover in San Francisco, so I call my father, as per his request. He only answers his home phone.

“I called your cell,” I tell him.

“Oh yeah. Well, it's on. But I'm in the office doing my exercises.” He's referring to low-impact movements he carries out every morning while breathing from an oxygen bar. “So I didn't forget... In some sense of the word.” My father turns on his cell phone about as much as he uses it, which is almost never. It's for the same reason he won't use Wi-Fi in his home. Anything with a potential for neurological impairment is avoided like the plague. But he still keeps a few of his vices. Alcohol's always been on the safe list, and most anything else can be excused for the sake of living.

“Okay,” I say. “I'm gonna go back to sleep.”

“Don't miss your flight,” he replies with a sense of concern I can't quite place.

A small plane takes me from SFO to Spokane, Washington. I'm seated next to a woman in her mid-fifties.

“You live in San Francisco?” she asks me.

“No. I just had a layover. I'm coming from LA.”

“To Washington?”

“No,” I answer once more. “My father just moved to Idaho. I'm making my first visit.”

“Oh, that's nice.”

“And you?”

“I'm coming from Truckee.”

“Really? My brother lives there.”

“And what does he do?” she asks.

“He's twenty-one. Still just figuring it out.”

“Aren't we all?” she says. The woman goes on to tell me she works in real-estate.

“I hear that's a tough business these days.”

“You know, we've been really lucky. Truckee's a fairly big tourist destination. A lot of wealthy people own vacation homes there, or want to own them. And the very wealthy are rarely effected by the market.”

The woman tells me she's visiting her daughter in a small, college town in western Idaho. “She just moved there with her boyfriend. He's getting his master's degree in poetry.” The woman throws her hands in the air. “But you know what? I almost admire them. They own practically nothing. The only reason they have a car is because my mother died and there was a car left that no one wanted. They live simply and they have practically no debt.”

“In a way, that sounds nice,” I say.

“Maybe I wouldn't have chosen that path, but I wish when I was younger, it was presented as a viable option.” She stops to look out the window. “I've worked hard all my life, and I've been more fortunate than most. But I've built a machine that has to keep moving. My house, my car, my investments; if the money dries up, they all disappear.”

I'm nodding to seem polite. But it sounds like a typical story.

“I'm reading this book called The Four-Hour Work Week,” she says. “The concept's quite simple. You come up with an idea, a product rather, and you outsource everything. So the production, the shipping, the...” She seems to lose her train of thought. “And you just check in every once in a while to make sure the money's still coming in.”

“Yeah,” I say. “But the hard part is coming up with a product people want on such a regular basis. Something you can live off while out-sourcing every aspect of production and distribution.”

“You know,” she counters. “When you put your mind towards something, the universe seems to open up with possibilities. For example, I've been trying to cut back on my hours, so I can actually live my life. And guess what? This The Four-Hour Week book just ends up on my lap.”

My father picks me up from the airport in a brand new Audi. “Nice ride,” I tell him. “When did you score this?”

“Oh, a couple weeks ago,” he says. “It's Laura's baby. She gets uncomfortable driving the truck around.”


“So what do you think?” he asks, gesturing towards the window, and the land that sprawls beyond it.

“It looks really flat,” I tell him.

“Ah, not where we live. Just you wait and see.”

We drive through rural Idaho, passing fields, barns, and PSA billboards condemning the use of methamphetamines.

“See,” says my father, pointing towards a cluster of empty buildings. “Every thing's for sale. The economy here is busted.”

“What's the main industry?”

“Timber and agriculture. But since the real-estate market flopped, construction is down, and there's no need to cut up more trees.” It doesn't seem funny but my father laughs. I realize it's about something else. “The building codes aren't as strict here as they are in California. Maybe it's to cut back on costs, maybe it's just because, but there are all these homes out here called the 'Idaho specials.' Once you start poking around, you start to find out there have been some very creative ways used to build a house.”

“Hope you didn't get one of those.”

“Oh no,” he says. “But let me tell you, there's something about that lack of regulation I like. Not that detail, per se. But there's a notion out here that the government stays out of your business. People keep to themselves. I guess it's all relative, but I like that.”

I fall asleep for the next thirty minutes, but my father wakes me up when we cross the bridge into Sandpoint.

“Just want you to see the grand entrance to our home,” he tells me.

“It reminds me of a video game called Alan Wake,” I say, staring out at the massive lake, islands, and train tracks surrounding the forested region.

“Really?” he asks, as if offended. But he's back to his role as tour guide before I can explain. “This is downtown Sandpoint. In a lot of ways, it's like Nevada City.” He means the small, Northern California town he just emigrated from. “Cute, little shops. Very touristy.”

I agree. Sandpoint reminds me just as much of a Disneyland street facade as the place I grew up in. Even the people here look the same: mountain-bread professionals, hippies, and a smidgen of white trash. I suppose the mullet-to-dive bar ratio is higher in Sandpoint, but it's also more hidden from the rest of the world.

“Oh, I love this,” says my father as we pull into his driveway. “The only people who come up this road are the people who live here. Maybe five cars pass by a day. That's it.”

“But it was kind of the same in Nevada City, right?”

“Are you kidding?” he says. “Day and night, people were driving up that hill.”

Nevada City has a population of 8,000 so it's hard to take him seriously. But when I don't respond, he says, “Well, I guess it's all relative. I just like it here. I'm king of my own little mountain.”

My father's wife, Laura, greets me with her two golden retrievers. “Welcome to our new little home.” She hugs me so that her head rests on my left shoulder. It's one of those quirks I never get used to. My father swears if you hug any other way, it screws up brain function. I'm afraid to ask if he makes love on the left side too.

“You want to give him the tour?” suggests my father.

“Sure,” says Laura in her peppy, little voice.

There are two stories in my father's house, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, an office, and a sizable living room and kitchen. It doesn't look like the home of someone who just lost one. Even if he fled, it doesn't resemble the quarters of a refugee.

Perhaps the price is lower than a similar property in California. But my hunch is that the move marks something more primal than a response to real-estate economics. If not biological, the act is historically ingrained.

After fleeing his country and university, changing occupations and spiritual beliefs, moving between at least five wives, and twice as many locales, it seems high time my father re-enact some change.

“I've had this dream of traveling the world with Laura,” he says. “Maybe fly to Australia. But now that I'm here...” He looks out at his spectacular, lake view. “...The last thing I ever want to do is leave.”

In ten years time, who knows if five cars a day will be peaceful enough, or if the king of the mountain will be overthrown.

To Be Continued...


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