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Cold Comfort

Michael Dean Clark

This is the first in a series of thoughts on how place shapes and is shaped by the stories we tell.

In 1993, I left  Encinitas, California – a suburb of San Diego roughly 25 miles north of the city – for what I thought would be a quick four years of college in L.A. Then four years became 17 and I accepted the fact that my hometown would be merely a conversation point for the rest of my life.

In the process, I devised a way to keep San Diego present in my life - by writing about it. The concept came to me in the middle of my first Midwestern winter (which looked a little like the one they’re having now). I can almost pinpoint the moment I decided to make the Southern of Southern California my geographical muse.

It happened on a day when they cancelled school in Milwaukee. Because it was cold. Not a snow day. A cold day.

Coming from a place where I never once had to shovel the sunshine off my driveway, this was frightening to me. They actually shut down school because there was a strong possibility of children getting frostbite while waiting for the bus.

I’d never felt homesickness as actual nausea before. Actually, it was more like creative morning sickness (at least, it seemed to feel like my wife’s descriptions of the actual, baby-induced morning sickness she was having at the time). I found myself thinking about the beach, random snapshots of winter mornings with no clouds or snow, wearing shorts when I went Christmas caroling.

At first, these memories were anti-nostalgia. They mocked me with their warm breezes and complete disconnection from my reality. A quick visit to the coast during the Christmas break only made the feelings worse when I settled into the next three months of outdoor icebox conditions.

The memories continued with the cold and it wasn’t until a friend of mine inadvertently suggested a solution that I found productive use for them. Craig and I were in a writing workshop together and I told him a story about a guy who wore nothing but an adult diaper and Birkenstocks while sitting next to the convenience shop I frequented as a kid. Craig asked why I hadn’t written a story about him and, with no good answer, I set out to do so.

But to tell diaper guy’s story I had to tell a dozen others. And with each, the winter grew a bit shorter and the reason for my being there a bit clearer. By April, the snow had melted and left behind the shape of what would become my first book-length manuscript.

It seemed odd to me at the time that a story contained in a five-mile stretch of the Coast Highway in San Diego was the product of a Wisconsin winter. Now that I’ve moved back to the West Coast (something that seems more dreamlike than less the longer I am here), it feels only natural.

I left San Diego to find it; to discover how deeply ingrained this place is in me and how strongly I feel about sharing it with others. Living here again with that new perspective only makes that more apparent.  I don’t know if I’ll ever sell that first book, but maybe that wasn’t the point.     

Michael Dean Clark is an author of fiction and nonfiction and an Assistant Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University. He lives in San Diego with his wife and 2.8 children.