Christmas in Newport.

A week ago, as we sat in her parent’s living room, a friend asked me if I or other Californians refer to that state as “Cali.” I think I said something that was still offensive but not as much, something like, “If someone refers to the state as ‘Cali,’ you know they aren’t actually a Californian,” but with a degrading term thrown in somewhere.

“What about ‘Welcome to the O.C., b—?’” she asked, referencing the pilot for the smash early 21st century teen drama “The O.C.” (In her goodness, she edited the actual profane b-word to a pronunciation of its first letter.)

“We only say that to be ironic,” I answered. Secretly, I’d hoped for several years that an opportunity to use the phrase would present itself, but as of yet, I’ve yet to properly welcome anyone to Orange County.


What made me think of that conversation was the freeway transition from the 405 south to the 55 south on the way to my uncle’s house in Newport Beach. This would be the first Christmas Eve I’d ever celebrated anywhere besides Grandma’s house (the only exception being the Christmas I was in Canada as a missionary,) and I was looking forward to telling people I’d spend Christmas in Orange County. I sat in the front passenger seat of our rented sedan, a Nissan (“We used to shoot them down,” my grandpa commented when he heard what the make of our rental car was.) Dad drove, and Mom sat in the back with Kris. It was 4:40 in the afternoon, about an hour before sunset, and the sky’s light was beginning to turn golden. The lanes were mostly empty, exposing large patches of gray concrete which looked a bit orange from the sunlight.

And while I couldn’t see from my seat, I’m sure my mother imagined the car—the maroon 2010 Nissan AltimaI—as shining gloriously in the glow. She’d made me wash the car by hand earlier that morning. “We don’t want to embarrass your uncle by parking our car in his neighborhood, at least not more than we usually do.”

“But people are actually paid to wash these cars when we take it back,” I replied. “I have to do this manual labor, someone else’s job, so that our car looks nice while it’s parked in a neighborhood?”

“Matt,” my mom sighed, “I want it washed.”


Christmas in Newport Beach seems to mean a lot more for Californians than from anyone out of state, at least that I’ve met. Because of The O.C., most people under 23 know about Newport Beach and where it is, but no one is ever excited when I tell them where I spend my holidays. I think it’s because we’re so territorial in southern California; I don’t know about the northern half, but I’m assume they’re the same way. The key is the bumper stickers. I haven’t seen stickers that say “Rhode Island Native” or “East Alabama Mom,” but I’ve been able to recognize Californians in my cross country travels by the stickers in their back windows: “Nor-Cal” written in gothic font across the entire back windshield of a pickup truck, or “SoCal” proudly displayed across the tailgate. For a while, it was in to advertise the specific city you were from in those little white, round stickers on your back window’s lower corner. “LKWD” meant that the owners of the car were from Lakewood, and “DNY” signified Downey. At the time, I thought it was some secret gang thing (as asserted in the chain e-mails from that paranoid white lady in the ward,) but now I think it’s just a territorial thing. Californians tend to be proud of their home city or state. “Where I’m from is better than where you’re from,” we think.

These territorial standards are what we, Californians, use to affirm ourselves and feed our egos. My father told me that once, as a missionary in Germany, he explained to his Utahan companion that since the US is the most economically and politically powerful country in the world, California is the most economically and politically powerful state in the country, and Los Angeles is the most politically and economically powerful city in the state, Los Angeles was the center of the world. It wasn’t very popular at the time, and it isn’t any more popular when I explain it to people. But for some reason I feel this need to repeat the explanation. It never gets more than a chuckle.

And so, as a Californian, I validate myself from my territory. I once asked my dad if it was fair to assess an area’s population based on that area’s advertising and what cars the locals drive and what kinds of houses they live in. The idea behind the advertising is that marketing campaigns are aimed at specific demographics, and based on the advertising in an area, one can tell what kind of demographic inhabits that area. A company wouldn’t advertise an unnecessary service—we’ll say, breast augmentation, to pick a completely random example—in a neighborhood where the occupants relied on government aid to keep their kids fed. And the quality of a neighborhood’s housing compared with the vehicles lining the streets could, in theory, tell one what economic bracket its inhabitants belonged to. This works even if the inhabitants are “faking it.” For example, my north Downey neighborhood in LA county features new Acuras and Chevys parked in front of modest suburban houses; there are many more cars in front of each house than there should be for single family dwellings. The new cars say that image is more important than sound financial decisions. The modest, overcrowded houses confirm this. If the occupants were truly part of the wealthy classes, they wouldn’t be sharing a home with two other families. Thus, by my neighborhood’s cars, I come to the conclusion that the people are concerned with image, but not really doing that well. They’re superficial, and what else would they be? It’s LA.

When answering my question of whether it was fair to assess an area by its indicators, my father said yes, “It’s obviously okay.”

Those indicators—advertising, housing assessment, vehicle demographics, etc.—are the indicators I’d  used to assess Draper, Utah. When explaining how I think that Draper is like the city of the Beverly Hillbillies, a city of tacky people who suddenly have money and spend it in ways they think rich people should with often hilarious results, my friend Alison cut me off and said that I don’t even know what Draper’s really like and I’m basing my opinion on a single person I know. In the interest of full disclosure, I really don’t like Draper. I’ve driven through it a heck of a lot; I’ve seen plenty of its neighborhoods where the homes look like failed Disney Imagineers decided to go into home design, and I’ve seen the generally low quality of driving on Draper streets where people consistently cut across right turn only lanes at the last minute so they can go straight. But Alison was right, and I don’t really know the people of that city. I know a person, and I am moderately familiar with her values, but I don’t know the individual residents.

And so I’m left thinking, Who is right? Generalizations and archetypes are what I’ve used my entire life to understand the world. The conclusions I draw make sense to me. But Alison was right in her rebuttal—individuals are often very different than the stereotypes. I don’t drive a BMW or have a father who is a business owner or wear Abercombie & Fitch apparel, but I’m a white kid from LA. Why do I see myself as the individual exception in a homogeneous population?

It might just be that it’s because I don’t drive a BMW; I never had a car until I was almost 23. The catalyst was being told by a girlfriend as we broke up that the most unattractive thing about me was my lack of a vehicle. Two weeks later, I borrowed $1500 from my sister and purchased a 1995 Ford Taurus with a dent in its side. The car has been good to me, needing some work but not too much, but it is a symbol of my true economic class. I don’t have the money to even fake it and purchase a new car I can’t really afford. When I drive my car home, it isn’t just the Idaho license plates that make it stand out in the neighborhood.

And as of a week ago, I know that because I didn’t have the cash to fix my car’s engine mounts until I took out another loan last month, the transmission is broken and due to go out anytime. It’s a $4500 repair, one which neither I nor my parents can afford. I feel like my car has terminal cancer and that I’m just helplessly waiting, watching it hack and sputter and cough and wondering if each day will be its last. When my mother found out, she apologized that she wasn’t able to buy me a better car. “I didn’t imagine that we’d end up like this,” she said.

“It’s not a huge deal. Something will work out. It’s just a car,” I replied, trying to reassure both her and myself. But the pressure is there, in the back of my soul, constantly reminding me that I can’t afford for my car to break down, and I don’t know what will happen if it does, and how will I pay for the Brit Lit tour if my mom can’t find a job and Dad might not be teaching next semester due to budget cuts?

My dad said that what I am is kind of caught in the middle of two worlds—a family whose income was under the poverty line for most of my youth but whose lifestyle has been middle class, leaving us entrenched in debt. Like my dad once explained to me, I grew up hating the rich for oppressing me and the poor for being tacky.

And so I continue to pretend, to pretend like my family is going to Newport Beach because we’ve earned it.  Spending Christmas Eve in Newport Beach becomes a status symbol. I can use it to cover up the financial insecurities haunting me and pretend like I have a right to make assessments like, “Newport isn’t a tacky place like Draper is.”


As I ride in the passenger seat, my dad takes the Jamboree road exit, and our maroon, rented Nissan pulls up to a stop light next to an old lady in a Mercedes. In Draper, I think, a person might say, “Oh, yeah, I guess I’ll just drive to the store IN MY NEW CAR;” there, the money screams at you in such a tacky way. In Newport, I say to myself, the money doesn’t care that you exist, and a person would say, “Who are you? Here are my keys. Do I return for valet here?”


Power Failure

The internet was getting boring as it usually does when I am at work. For the umpfteen time I went to NFL.com and facebook to see if anything new posted. Around 7:45pm, the lights went out.

When I looked up to see out the front doors of the store, expecting the other shops to be out of power again, all I saw was black and a few headlights from cars. I later found out that not only was the entire city out, but three counties as well.

Immediately I cursed under my breath because I couldn’t close the store. I packed up my things and headed to the other store by the Arctic Circle to see if they were able to close in time.

I then drove home to change. I wanted to do something fun, after the initial annoyance, it was kind of exciting having the power out. I chatted with Ivor, Natalie, SarahJo, and Olivia, and then left. I went to Stephanie’s apartment to see how she was doing.

We decided that the best thing to do was to skip town and go to IF for some food. I called Brit, Aly, Deborah, and Ivor to see if they wanted to join us. Brit didn’t answer. Aly was going to a final. Deborah already left to IF with a friend. And Ivor didn’t answer.

We jumped into my car to stop by my apartment to grab my wallet. On the way we saw Brit leaving her house to go to her final as well. We ended up waiting for her and some of her roommates to join us for IF restaurant fun.

By 9:45pm, Whit, Aly, Brit, Stephanie, and I were on our way to IF. Kasey and Jeremy were in their car and planned to meet us there. We decided on TGIFriday’s because the Jack Daniel’s Flat Iron steak is just that good.

On our way home, around 11:40pm, I was feeling pretty good. The night didn’t turn into another evening of watching LOST. As I drove, an image of my sister, Gina, entered my mind. She was still in Rexburg. I felt myself sink into my seat.

I didn’t think about calling her, or texting her, or stopping by her apartment to check if she was ok. On many occasions throughout the night I had conversations about how awesome SarahJo’s hometeachers were for calling to see if she was alright; and we made jokes about how my hometeachers never called me. And then there I was, driving home from Idaho Falls with a group of friends I love hanging out with, and I didn’t even think to ask my sister. My sister.

What kind of brother am I to forget about her?

I told my mom this morning about it on a phone call. She asked me if I called her since Thursday night when the power went out. I hadn’t. She said it made her sad.

So I called Gina today to offer to help with anything. She simply said, “No thanks. Most of the packing is done, but thanks for the offer.”

This morning I promised myself to be a better brother. I never hesitate to help anyone when they call for a favor, but I forgot about my sister when the power went out.


Blog Hog

Okay, I know that two posts in a row make me a blog hog, (a term I just came up with myself, and I'm pretty proud of it.) but I just wrote an email to Sis. Morgan, and I wrote something that surprised me. I guess this is like a small, strange thank-you note for being who you are. Anyway, this is what I sent to her:

Alright, so the semester before I started working for you, I was really lonely. I felt really unsure about school, about church, about my roommates--I wasn't really jazzed about anything. It was a really stupid part of my life. I just kind of stopped caring because I figured no one really cared about me--part of the reason I had such poor grades, remember? Like I said, stupid part of my life. If I were to try to describe how I felt during all that stuff, the word I'd use would be "absent."

Then I started working at the WC, and life started to be better, but not just better: great. I finally felt like someone cared about me in Idaho. Not just a wimpy, "oh-hey-how-are-you" type of caring; it was the full on "why?" type of caring. "Why is your day good?" "Why is you day bad?" "Why didn't get enough sleep?" Everyone at the Writing Center--all my brothers and sisters there--truly cared about me. It was such a strange feeling to me, and, quite honestly, an answer to some prayers I hadn't said yet.

I needed a job, and the Center gave me that. I needed a safe haven, and I got that. But, most importantly, I needed to see someone care about me, and what I got was a family.

Like I said, a very strange thank you, but I just felt like it was something I needed to share with everyone.


My Overnight Sunset

Since I started working overnight shifts, I’ve become part of a different world. Everything is inverted and foreign. Sunsets have turned into sunrises and sunrises into sunsets. Sleep comes solely in fits and spurts of two or three hours, and lunch time is at two in the morning. The workers from both Taco Bell and Aiberto’s 24 Hour Mexican know my name and that I’ll only get mild sauce if I’ve gotten more than five hours of sleep the day before. I spend more time talking to myself or to books than I spend talking to real people.

I work on the inventory team stocking shelves, setting up displays, making sure the store is clean—making sure everything is in good shape. There are four others who work with me, but we hardly ever see each other—I shelve my cart; they shelve theirs. The only time we meet is for breaks: twice for ten minutes and once for an hour every eight-hour shift. On our breaks, we talk about paper cuts, chapped lips and dried-out hands, and sleep—always sleep.

To us, sleep is an obsession—sleep is an addiction. Going to bed at 7am, waking up at 10am, back to sleep at 3pm, and then up again at 8pm is considered a normal sleep pattern. Playlists on my iPod are named “for when I’m sleepy,” “for when I’m really sleepy,” and one called “I just drank a Rockstar.” Each hour I’m awake is another hour wish I was sleeping. My body craves sleeps; each bone, each muscle, each joint screams sleep. I must have it; I want it; I need it.

After finishing our shift one morning, the other co-workers and I walked out of the store and into the parking lot. Everything was cold, pallid, and grey-tinted. Fog hugged the ground, hiding our cars. The moon had fallen to the horizon and was now just a fat, orange ball, which seemed to be hung over from the night before. In one hand, I held my keys; in the other was half a sandwich that I had decided would make a good breakfast.

We all said our obligatory have-a-nice-weekends and see-you-Mondays, then each turned and walked to our cars. I started my car and turned on the heater, trying to melt the frost of my windshield. I pumped my hands open and closed and clapped them together to try to warm them. Cupped over my mouth, I blew hot air into them. It was a kind of cold that makes your bones ache.

A few minutes later a gloved hand knocked on my window. I rolled down my window to see Derek standing there with a balaclava over most of his face.

“I thought you might want to see this,” he said. He took a few steps back and let me open my door. I stepped out and felt the air fill my lungs. The cold made it feel like I was inhaling daggers.

“See what?” I said, taking a bite of my sandwich. He motioned behind me, a gloved finger pointing just over my shoulder.

Puzzled, I turned and looked behind me.

“Just watch,” he said.

The sky, which was lifeless and dismal a few minutes before, was now more of an early grey—like something was awaking within it. The grey slowly turned the color of a robin’s egg and then to a pale, but still vibrant orange. Soon, the sun breached the horizon and climbed up the sky, cascading light across everything around me. It was beautiful.

I leaned against my car, folding my arms across my chest. I let out a small laugh as if to say, oh right—that. I could feel the sun’s warmth as it burned through the fog.

“You know,” I said. “I miss this. I really do.”

With our cars still running, Derek and I leaned back and watched the world around us come to life. The birds started to fly from one light post to another, searching the parking lot for discarded fast food. Car lights on Lancaster drive were blurry as people drove to their jobs. The sun rose higher and higher in the sky, becoming bright enough I had to squint to look at it.

“Until Monday,” Derek said, turning to his car and shutting the door. He drove off leaving me alone in the parking lot.

Despite trying to function of limited sleep, I felt strangely awake. Each and every joint ached and throbbed, but I felt awake—I felt alive. Everything about the world around me was something new, something I’ve never met before.

I felt the fog with my fingertips and realized that it was slippery. Birds chirped and sang, and I knew it sounded beautiful because it gave me goosebumps the same way that good poems gave me goosebumps. Colors were almost too saturated: the only thing I think about the grass was that it was “really green. I mean, really really green,” and the sky was “blue, but a really nice blue.” And, for some reason, this all made sense.

I took another deep breath, holding it in and letting the cold air burn in my lungs. Another deep breath, letting it burn again. I smiled, knowing that this was the way life was supposed to be—knowing that life wasn’t meant to simply be lived, it was meant to be experienced.

I drove home that morning feeling a little closer to Thoreau and Emerson and appreciating the new world I was a part of.