The Farm House Journal

Volume 4: It's The Old Army Game

Chapter 5: Home in Pasadena


Christmas lingers rather a long time around our house. Traditionally, we keep the tree and decorations up through the Epiphany, January sixth, and for good measure Russian Christmas the next day. By then, the tree is usually quite ready to come down. This year, the tree on the seventh was still sucking up a gallon of water a day and holding on to its needles. Not having the heart to take down such a magnificent tree in its prime, we kept it up through Mom's birthday on the fifteenth.

Scott Spiezio, 2002 ALCSUsually, the stretch between Mom’s birthday and the beginning of March is for us a period of hibernation. The weather is cold, the days are short, and baseball withdrawal has us in its depressing grasp. We spend the days eating Christmas tamales, and the nights watching tapes of the Angels’ 2002 World Championship run.

This year, however, we were determined to keep up the momentum of the previous three months, so we got an early start on the Spring chores. We gave the house a thorough cleaning and tidying. The pomegranate tree had been performing poorly the previous two years, so I gave it a thorough therapeutic pruning. I once again cleaned out and reorganized the garage, this time doing such a good job that it stayed organized for over three months—a new personal record.

Victrola 111Detail of Victrola 111With everything so clean and tidy, I was motivated at last to bring our Victrola over from the Doll House. We bought it in non-working condition about five years ago, and one of my last projects before starting the Farm House work was to restore it to perfect working order. It may seem like a foolish affectation to have an acoustic record player, but the fact is that acoustic records sound best when played acoustically. In fact, they are not fully compatible with electrical reproduction, which is why they often sound very poorly when played on a modern turntable. Since I collect and restore acoustic records, it is necessary for me to hear the way they were intended to sound so as to guide my efforts in the proper direction.

All this notwithstanding, even if I had no such justification for owning an acoustical player, I would still want one. There is just something about the way an acoustic horn moves the air in a room that lends the reproduction a presence that, for all its obvious lack of fidelity, recreates a live performance in a way that electrical reproduction generally does not. When you put a Caruso record on the Victrola and stand directly in front of the horn, it is as if Caruso were standing right before you. It is a visceral, addictive experience.

What I'd really like is an external-horn Victor, the kind with the big horn sitting over the turntable, because they have an even bigger, more enveloping sound. Sadly, those have been priced beyond reason by collectors.

I was dying to bring this experience to the Farm House, and now that we had a proper location cleared for the Victrola, Lydia and I packed it up carefully and brought it over. After I set it up, the first record I put on it was one I had bought several years earlier, just for this occasion: “Home in Pasadena,” sung by Al Jolson with the Isham Jones Orchestra:

Home in Pasadena,
Home where grass is greener,
Where honey bees hum melodies
and orange trees scent the breeze.
I want to be a home-sweet-homer,
there I’ll settle down
Beneath the palms
in someone’s arms,
In Pasadena town.

Soon I’ll be on my merry way,
to that dreamland of yesterday,
Tell the mailman I long to stay in California,
To be where honey bees and orange trees
scent the breeze, sweet melodies.
Settle down in that happy town,
With the mountains all around,
Friendly people there to be found,
Nuts right by my door,
There beneath the palms,
In somebody’s arms,
In Pasadena town.

Home in Pasadena sheet music
Oh, there’ll be an aggregation
waiting for me at the station
In Pasadena town, in Pasadena town.
All my life I’ve been a rover,
Now it’s time to think it over,
I want to settle down, I want to settle down.
Busy little bumblebees,
Syncopated melodies,
Trees are slowly swinging
while the birds are softly singing in the breeze.

I’ll be a happy home-sweet-homer,
Nevermore to be a roamer,
In Pasadena town, in Pasadena town.(1)
Brunswick 2582-B

No one could sell a song quite like Jolson did. When it was over, Lydia, tears welling up in her eyes, said, “Well, now we can never leave.” Thus did the song become the Official Theme of the Farm House. The words reflect our own experience: “Beneath the palms/in somebody’s arms”, “Trees are slowly swinging/while the birds are softly singing in the breeze”, “Nuts right by my door.”

You see, although I have been reticent to mention it, not all our experiences here have been pleasant. When we first moved in, we had frequent problems with bums loitering and emptying the contents of our recycling bin onto the street in the search for items with redemption value on trash night. One drug-addled free spirit even came up and started pounding on our door late one night.  Happily, our policy of cautious confrontation of such malefactors, and the assertive presence of Nellie and Travis, effectively eliminated such incidents over time.

Original rear fenceNevertheless, we still felt quite vulnerable on our rear flank. Our border along the back and fifty feet up from it on the south side was marked by an ancient, visually-transparent chain-link fence. On the other side of this length of fence for all but ten feet is the parking lot for two houses converted to apartments fronting on the cross-street. To make matters worse, sometime in the past a twenty-foot stretch of the fence had been bent over at a 60-degree angle, possibly by bums who liked to jump the fence and get drunk in the back yard during the Farm House’s lost years.

We found this an exceedingly unpleasant situation. Not only were we quite vulnerable along this border, but we had absolutely no privacy. From the cross-street, one could look up the driveway of the apartment building and see right into our garage. A group of kids played frequently in the parking lot right in front of the bent section, and were constantly launching balls of every type into our yard. We suspected that these were the same kids who broke into the house, because it eventually became obvious that they were throwing the balls over on purpose as a pretext to climb over and check things out. Travis and Nellie soon put a stop to that, but then there were constant whines of “XQ me, XQ me!” Half the time it was one of our balls they were asking for.

Damage to garage side doorNot only did we feel that we could not enjoy being in our own backyard, but we felt we couldn’t leave anything of value out there, or even in the garage, that was light enough to be transported over the fence. In case this seems unduly paranoid, I should add that our garage side door, not long after we moved in, was damaged by an extremely amateurish attempt to pry it open one night when I was foolish enough to leave a power tool on my workbench in plain view.

This spring, we finally decided to rectify this situation by replacing the old chain-link fence with a proper wood one. We chose our man through the usual bid process, and he advised us that the job would take three days: one day to remove the old fence, one day to set the posts, and one to install the rails and boards. This meant two days with an open border.

The thought of this filled me with dread. Not only was I haunted by the thought of any passing bum or real estate agent being able to walk right up to our back door, but there was also the very real fear of Travis wandering off hot on the trail of a scent, never to be seen again. Hounds are well-known for such behavior, and Travis had already given us some indications that he ran true to breed in this characteristic.

There was also the neighbors’ dog to consider. We share a border along the last ten feet of the fence to the north with a nice couple with a Gordon setter who looks exactly like Travis, except he has a long wavy coat and is slightly larger. He and Travis aren’t more than a few months apart in age, and they struck up a friendship through the fence soon after we moved in. We told our neighbors about our fence improvement project so that they’d know to keep their dog tied up.

The night before the work began, I was so occupied with these concerns that I got no sleep. I kept running through all the precautions we were to take: I would board up the garage window and side door, leave the outside lights on all night, and take the dogs out on leashes.

The start of work was delayed a day while the fence guy finished his previous project, which occasioned another sleepless night, but he showed up bright and early the next day, and when he left the old fence was gone. As night fell, I girded my loins and waited for the onslaught. And waited. And waited.

At ten o’clock, I looked out and noticed absolutely no sign of life in the entire apartment complex. Not a person was to be seen; there wasn’t even a light coming through a window. Moreover, all the cars were parked as far away from our property line as possible. The thought had never once occurred to us, but apparently the people in the apartment complex were more wary of us, and our two big dogs, than we were of them. An epiphany ensued: We were the imposing presence. We were the Big Dogs.

Well, gosh!

I slept very soundly that night. There was still the concern of the dogs’ running away, but I had taken care of that. I had issued strict orders that they must be taken out on a leash until the new fence was completed. I thus shuffled off to Dreamland with the satisfied mind of one who has dispatched a Major Problem with Solomon-like wisdom.

What I didn’t know was that Lydia had exercised her wifely veto power on my orders. I learned this the next morning, when I came downstairs and looked out the back door to see a cat emerge from behind the garage at full speed heading due south for parts unknown, with Travis in hot pursuit.

Travis and EvangelineTravis and RogerNow, Travis has nothing against cats per se. He loves our two cats, and in fact he and Evangeline are fast friends. Evangeline took Travis on as her protégé early on, and regularly grooms his face as if he were her kitten. It's quite touching, if a bit nauseating at times. Roger accepted him from the first as well, although more as a tolerant sibling than a nurturing parent.
This notwithstanding, Travis was bred to chase small game until it runs up a tree, and there were no trees between the small game in flight and the busy cross-street directly in its trajectory, so it seemed futile to hope his sense of cameraderie would somehow override his strong instinct.

With Travis’ short undisciplined life flashing before my eyes, I was fixing to execute a quixotic attempt at intervention when a miraculous thing happened: Travis suddenly broke off the chase right at the property line, as if there had been an invisible force field there. It was a miracle! Then again, Lydia hadn’t served him his breakfast yet. Well, whatever it was, it was clear that our little boy was growing up, because for the remainder of the time the border was open, we were able to leave him outside with no fear that he would cross over into the parking lot, despite innumerable temptations to do so. Thus began Travis’ ongoing, fitful journey towards becoming a Good Dog.

This outcome confirmed the soundness and courage of Lydia’s judgment in this matter, as well as the foolishness and timidity of my own. Coming hot on the heels of the sudden evaporation of my fears regarding the removal of the old fence, it was now official: I had become a worry-wart. As with any good Boy Scout, I have always considered it my duty to be prepared for any eventuality while maintaining faith in Providence, but the difficult period we had just endured had shaken that faith badly, and led me to expect disaster around every corner as a matter of course. These two good breaks in rapid succession left me feeling heartily ashamed of myself, and I resolved to be more like my super-smart wife and enjoy the ride when I can.

In this spirit, I worried no more about the fence project, even though it was of course taking much longer than promised, because I could see by the way it was shaping up that it would be a good, stout fence. Then, I looked out the next day to see Travis standing in the yard. I looked behind me to see Travis also sitting in the parlor. Disorientation ensued briefly, until I realized that the dog outside was our neighbor’s dog, who as I mentioned looked a lot like Travis at first glance. This was the fourth day of what we had told them would be a three-day project, so they had let their dog out when they left in the morning, not noticing that the fence was not there. We tied their dog up over in their yard and left them a note.

They didn’t get back to us until the evening of the next day, which was a Friday. Although the fence contractor had promised faithfully that the fence would be done by then no matter what, it wasn’t. Fortunately, however, the only part that wasn’t done was the part between us and the other dog-owners, making our yard and theirs a closed circuit. Standing together at our common border assessing the situation that evening, the four of us resolved to give our dogs free rein in both yards, creating what our neighbor termed “a Born Free dog run.” Ah, a good sense of humor! They say good fences make good neighbors, but in this case it was ironically the lack of a good fence that provided that happy service. I guess irony is not always unpleasant after all.

That weekend was the happiest of Travis’ young life. He and his pal cavorted together from sunup to sundown, stopping only for meals. Nellie was thrilled as well, because our neighbors had nice soft grass for her to hang out on. It’s just a shame that I didn’t think to take one stinking picture of the entire proceeding. Neglecting to record things pictorially was an unfortunate habit that I have only recently quit. Now, I can’t stop taking pictures, and I’m running out of disk space.

The dogs enjoyed themselves so much that we felt bad for them when their little idyll ended with the completion of the fence the following Monday. This notwithstanding, it was quite a relief to have a solid boundary between us and the parking lot. To have some privacy and security at last, and to have that squalid asphalt sea banished from view, seemed to lift a great weight from our shoulders. This sounds like a cliché, I realize, but I can’t think of a more precise description for the way we felt, so I’m sticking with it. Let the chips fall where they may! Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead! Hand me that piano!

BobcatThe new fence forced us finally to face the issue of all the debris littering the ground. Our entire yard had become a big compost pile, six inches deep in spots, but we didn’t notice this until the fence installers rolled the debris back from the boundary like a carpet and made big piles of the vegetation that had been growing on the old fence. Not only was this terribly unsightly (and, frankly, embarrassing), but it was also a distinct fire hazard, and with summer’s merciless heat just around the corner, we knew we had to do something quickly. So, we hired a hauler to pick up all the mess, including some construction debris left by the contractor, and take it away. It took a crew of four men two whole days to haul it away in three huge truckloads, with one of the men using a Bobcat to load up the trucks. He did a little needed grade correction in the process, which was a nice added bonus. I really, really, really want a Bobcat. It would sure come in handy on the back forty.

FlowersNow that we had a nice, clean, mostly flat yard, we could see that we needed a little color, so we went to the nursery and got a whole mess of color in the form of little six-packs of annuals, some larger perennials, and a few big pots. We were just going to get a few little six-packs, but they’re all so beguiling, and so inexpensive, that we went a little overboard. I arranged everything as artfully as I could manage, but I didn’t have to work too hard at it; the plants didn’t need any help to look pretty. We ended up with four big pots full of vibrant color, and arranged on a bench with our other potted plants surrounding them, they made quite a charming display.

The arboreal dellLate that afternoon, we sat out in our back yard for the first time since I fell ill. It was a perfect Pasadena day, the kind that makes you feel as if you were in the mountains. It was just warm enough to raise the scent from our little potted gardenia, which a gentle breeze thoughtfully brought to us. The sky showed a deep, perfect blue through the undulating boughs of pine and oak.

Squirrel on platform feederThe traffic noise faded into insignificance behind the sounds of the birds singing and the squirrels joyfully cavorting about, uninhibited by our presence.

Pomegranate tree in bloomThe pomegranate had responded well to its winter pruning, and its branches were laden with little vermillion blooms. We looked up at the Farm House in front of us, and admired its simple, picturesque beauty, framed as it was by the tall trees and the blue sky. It was the first time we’d enjoyed being in our back yard since the construction project began.

Ensconced as we were in such sweet surroundings, the words of Andrew Jackson Downing, which I quoted in Volume 1, came to mind:

          “And how much happiness, how much pure pleasure, that strengthens and invigorates our best and holiest affections, is there not experienced in bestowing upon our homes something of grace and loveliness—in making the place dearest to our hearts a sunny spot, where the social sympathies take shelter securely under the shadowy eaves, or grow and entwine trustfully with the tall trees or wreathed vines that cluster around, as if striving to shut out whatever of bitterness or strife may be found in the open highways of the world. What an unfailing barrier against vice, immorality, and bad habits, are those tastes which lead us to embellish a home, to which at all times and in all places we turn with delight, as being the object and the scene of our fondest cares, labors and enjoyments; whose humble roof, whose shady porch, whose verdant lawn and smiling flowers, all breathe forth to us, in true, earnest tones, a domestic feeling that at once purifies the heart, and binds us more closely to our fellow-beings!”(2)

I had found Downing's words inspirational from the first, but only in a theoretical, somewhat hyperbolic way, as an ideal to guide us. They made me say to myself, "Yeah, that would be nice." I figured we'd get close to it eventually, after a great deal of working to get things just right. And yet, there I was, with only a bare minimum of the work completed, already surrounded by a world that with a few peripheral exceptions ("verdant lawn") was perfectly described by Downing's words.

At that moment, I realized that despite the vast amount of cosmetic work still ahead of us, we had nonetheless arrived. We had survived our long plague year, and reached our destination. At last, we were truly at home in Pasadena.


1. Clarke, Grant, Leslie, Edgar and Warren, Harry: Song, "Home in Pasadena." 1923: Clarke and Leslie Songs, Inc., New York.   Return to text
2. Downing, Andrew Jackson, Victorian Cottage Residences (1981: Dover Publications, Inc., New York), pp. viii-ix.