August 10, 2009 --
Longtime readers of this column ("WHAT I SAY -- It's the Air or the Water," July 8, 2002) know that in one of the lucky breaks of my fortunate life, I turned out to be the son of parents who bought a house in the Umbrian countryside of Italy about 25 years ago. Not a bad deal, you know, having a place to go to for vacation where simply buying groceries is a touristic experience and ruling credo is "the sweetness of doing nothing" -- dolce far niente.
Once again, I'm writing a column at the dining room table in the house in Umbria, while the crickets make a racket outside. There's something different this year, though, which is that for the first time, I'm here without either of my parents. My mother died two years ago, and since then my father has only come to the house in Italy for a month or so at a time. This year he came in May and plans to return in October. He likes his life in Santa Monica, and can bear to skip Italy's hottest months.
Given that my wife is a college professor, and our son is in college, the only time we could have a vacation together is during those hot months. It felt a little odd, but we decided to come here even though my dad wouldn't be here. What this has meant is that a simple vacation has become something of a rite of passage.
All of a sudden -- as we approach 60 -- my wife and I are the grown-ups.
I realized this the day after we arrived, when I drove over to Todi, the nearby town, to run some errands. I've been coming here for more than 25 years, and we always rent a car, and drive around the countryside, but I realized that nearly every time I would go to Todi it was with my father to shop (there are several supermarkets in Todi), and he would drive.
You know how it is -- unless you're at the wheel yourself, you don't get a feel for the geography. As I drove to Todi the other day, I wondered if I would make the right turns and not get lost. I'm happy to report that I got there and back.
Of course, it wasn't only that my dad and mom weren't at the house, waiting for us to arrive, or that my dad wasn't driving, that made things generationally different. Our son brought along three friends -- pals from Santa Monica High School who have all been at college this past year. You sure do feel like a grown-up with four 19-year-olds around. (A little advice, if this happens to you -- buy more food than you expect you'll need, and no, having biscotti just before dinner doesn't spoil their appetites.)
Then we also have had a couple of our friends (and their high school-age son) visit. One thing we noticed is how technology has changed vacations. When my parents first bought their house in this village in the early '80s, they couldn't get a private phone. One family of neighbors had the only phone in the area -- a pay phone in their living room. You really were "away."
Now, our house has broadband, and what would a vacation be today without a laptop?
* * *
Terry O'Day's resignation from the Planning Commission recalls a lot of memories. The soft-spoken Mr. O'Day replaced Kelly Olsen on the commission six years ago, in what may been the most highly charged political vote in the nine years that I've been writing this column. ("Olsen's Bid for Reappointment Fails," July 9, 2003)
While there have been, of course, bigger issues in those years than one seat on the commission, the deciding vote cast by then City Council member Michael Feinstein for Mr. O'Day instead of Mr. Olsen marked the moment when reality began to impress itself upon the no-growth majority that had been elected to the City Council in 1998.
What I mean by "reality" is that if you're going to govern, you can't just say no, you have to make choices. You have to plan for change, you have to plan for progress, which won't just happen because you call yourself a progressive. Mr. O'Day, a true environmentalist, knows that, and the alternative of voting for a deep-thinker like him made Mr. Feinstein's choice not to vote for Mr. Olsen, a former ally, a lot easier.
I say it's a straight line from the vote that evening in 2003 to last year's election, when two City Council members who came out of the no-growth community, and who voted for Mr. Olsen, Council Members Richard Bloom and Ken Genser, campaigned against the Residents' Initiative to Fight Traffic.
Sometimes people wonder why I am obsessed with and fascinated by local politics. You only have to look at Washington today -- where President Obama is bringing back reality-based government, to the consternation of ideologues on both sides -- to realize that what goes on there is only local politics on a bigger stage.
I'd argue further that one cannot understand what's happening there without understanding what's happening here. And here at home it's up close and personal.
(And on that note, I'll take the opportunity to plug my book that's now been published -- "Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal" -- which includes, among other stories, the saga of Kelly Olsen and the Planning Commission.)
Publisher's note: "Urban Worrier is available at Hennessey & Ingalls bookstore, from the publisher's website, and from Amazon.