OFF THE BEAT: Boats against the current

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AUGUST 25, 2011

I never know what to say when people ask me where I’m from.

Usually, I just roll my eyes and say something to the effect of “it’s complicated,” but sometimes I take a deep breath and provide the full explanation.

There may be an easier way to describe it — and perhaps I’m missing the entire point of the question — but for me, there really is only one way to spell it all out. That is because this concept of “where I’m from” is inextricably linked to this other concept of “home.” And I don’t really know any other way to explain that one.

So here it is: until I was 5 years old, I lived in a Virginia suburb just outside Washington, D.C. This was the place where I spoke my first words, walked my first steps and formed my first memories. I can distinctly remember running door-to-door with my older cousin, showing off my Cruela DeVille impersonation to the neighbors and chasing fireflies in the sweltering summer heat with my friends.

But my father, a Bay Area native, longed to return to the Golden State, and so in November 1997, we packed up the blue Expedition and drove across the country to our new house in Salinas, Calif. Steinbeck Country.

Over the next 11 years my family spent there, I did most of my growing up. Learning to ride a bike and write in cursive, going through puberty, surviving middle school and experiencing the first half of high school all happened there. Most importantly, though, I think that small town taught me the most important lessons about people. I learned how it felt to have best friends and how it felt to lose them. And I grew kind of a thick skin.

Then, a few months prior to the start of my junior year of high school, my parents sat my brother and me down on the couch in our living room and told us very gently that we would probably be moving to Bakersfield, Calif., because my mother had found a really nice job there.

I immediately reacted with a firm and resounding “no.” I mean, have you seen the place? The triple-digit temperatures that plague the surprisingly large Central Valley town during the summertime were enough of a deterrent for my entire body to reject the concept of moving there like a transplant gone wrong.

But my parents, knowing how I felt about my current situation, looked into my eyes and offered me a simple concession: public school.

I started to listen at that point. You see, I’d been enrolled in private Catholic school since the fifth grade, with seventh grade and after being all-boys. There were plenty of reasons I had often fantasized about escaping those schools, but let’s just say we didn’t mesh very well.

It was largely for that reason that by the time I drove away from the central coast breeze and into the stagnant, polluted airs of southwest Bakersfield, I had grown accustomed to the move and was actually looking forward to it.

Now it may still surprise some of you to know that I ended up having a blast in Bakersfield. I spent most of my junior year living in a two-bedroom apartment with my mother while my father stayed in Salinas to wrap up his job there — and that part took some getting used to — but mostly I was just enamored with public school and all the people I met.

Senior year proved to be especially interesting — I began to discover my love for journalism, I came out of the closet and my straight best friend moved into my house, where he still resides to this day. These days, though I’m in many ways living my dream in Berkeley, I do miss Bakersfield sometimes. I actually wish I had spent more time there.

Yet I remain a forward-thinking person. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “it is sadder to find the past again and find it inadequate to the present than it is to have it elude you and remain forever a harmonious conception of memory.” So in all of this, please don’t get the impression that I am overcome with nostalgia or something.

Each of these places in which I spent time — even Loch Sheldrake, N.Y., where I spent 18 weeks spread over five summers of camp — had something important to teach me about this maze of a world. I wouldn’t be who I am without having lived in each of these locations, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’d like to think that I made the most out of every place, and I will forever be mindful of my experiences therein as I continue to search for my own definition of “home.”

After all, there’s no place like it.

Contact J.D. Morris at  or on Twitter


AUGUST 25, 2011