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Culture Engineer Gives Arrivals Helping Hand

In a three-part series, The Times takes a look at the problems of high mobility and its effect on the individual. Today's theme: Homesickness.

May 19, 1986

SAN DIEGO — Katherine Kennedy describes herself as a "cultural engineer." She talks to the women who move here with corporate husbands. These are women frightened of California. They believe they're lurking on the edge of the Apocalypse.

Not all are women, of course. Some of the men willfully coming here to new jobs and brighter careers are as nervous as cats caught on the freeway.

These are the people who view California with a mixture of fear and sunset-filled fantasy. They like the idea of living on the beach but see every liquor store holdup as the starting point for a Manson-like epidemic. Every small earth tremor mushrooms in the mind like the Big Mama they know will come. It's got to--after all, they're here.

Kennedy is executive director of Relocation Coordinates Inc., which does just what it says it does. It relocates business executives--upwardly mobile yuppies--to "America's Finest City."

News flash: Yuppies get homesick.

Kennedy, 35, remembers a German woman so terrified she wouldn't leave the house. She remembers a guy from Norman, Okla., who all but doubled his salary. He hated it here. He liked the job, the income and the status it gave him. What he didn't like was not having a vegetable garden that went on for acres, a stream in the backyard or seven siblings he could summon to the doorway faster than a Sooner halfback.

"In this business," she said, "we deal with uprooting. Uprooting is never easy."

Kennedy finds that "the ratio of move-backs is greater" when a male executive hasn't communicated with his wife. That is, he hasn't shared information that Kennedy makes available--about schools, churches, clubs, cost of living, etc. His wife can't find a job, or won't. She chooses not to fit in--who said she wanted to leave? "The difficult spouse" (male or female) makes a difficult day for the patient Kennedy.

What usually happens in communication crises, she said, is that "hubby" never bothered to share why the new job in the new town meant so much in the first place.

"It isn't that the other place is so much better," Kennedy said. "It's just that they know what they've got back there. You have to gently take the temperature of each family. If homesickness is really serious--and often it is--we say something like, 'Why not go to the counselor at General Dynamics? Better yet, let me have them give you a call.' "

Kennedy's job offers insight into marriage (why two out of three in California end in divorce). It gives her a handle on culture shock and homesickness and a more-unsavory byproduct, loneliness.

She remembers one family from a town near Chicago. They saw La Jolla and mumbled fearfully, "We'll never fit in." She worked hard to assure them, as she does with most clients, that fitting into La Jolla is hardly required. Kennedy sees San Diego as a crazy-quilt county of heterogenous variety.

"Look at the difference between La Jolla and Santee," she said. "El Cajon and Ocean Beach. Hey, you've got to find your community. I've got a feeling it's out there."

For instance, if Ocean Beach is a surfer's Woodstock, La Mesa is a nuclear-family paradise. El Cajon is a pickup-truck clone of Winslow, Ariz. How could anyplace with locales as different as Julian and Coronado be boring? Kennedy asked.

Well, what about her? Kennedy is an upbeat, attractive woman who almost glows with a positive mood. (Oh, one of those , you're saying.) Hey, listen, she's got a reason for not getting homesick.

"I'm from Lubbock," she said with a Texas drawl.

She confesses to missing starry (and dusty?) nights sipping iced tea on the back porch past midnight. Other than that, she wouldn't trade San Diego for any piece of Lone Star pie you could offer.

She didn't start out as a relocation expert; it just sort of happened. During days as an opera singer with a stage and a thousand marquees in front of her, she lived briefly in Bohemian Manhattan. Trying "to make it," she had happen what happens to so many. She failed--packed up and came home.

Home being San Diego.

Looking out windows at a lonely Central Park, she did glean a knowledge of homesickness that comes in handy when she deals with carloads of transplanted yuppies.

She sees it like "ocean waves sweeping over you. When the waves crash, it's all you can do to stay. It pierces you in the heart. If a lover is left behind, as he was in my case, that makes it all the more horrible. You really do feel like drowning.

"The only possible solution is getting involved--with other people, with community, with life . It's hard to get people to be adventurous and take risks, but if you're moving--in a sense, to a new life--you've got to.

"Otherwise, you might drown."

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