The Lure of CA
California defies generalization not just because of its wondrous
geographic variety, but because so much of its lure exists in our minds. The Golden
State is tarnished and it glows triumphant and no two views are the same: the landscape yields mountains and tule-fogged marshes, pristine coastlines and ravaged hillsides. Earthquake faults
hide waiting. There are spiked urban towers that want to be Chicago, and bits
of Humboldt County still happy with 1967.
For each pair of eyes that sees
what was lost, another takes in the glory that remains. Thats what beckons
writers to try and pin down the place on paper—and why writers most
often fail. The obvious touchstones are visual—Lake Tahoe, Coit
Tower, the Hollywood sign—but how does one define and portray a place
that continually reinvents itself, where the possibility of reinvention is
perhaps the strongest magnet of all?
Carey McWilliams, the prolific
mid-twentieth-century American author who headed east in 1950 to edit The
Nation but considered himself a Californian to the end, wrote the most
perceptive book about the Pacific Coast domain. In his 1949 study, California:
The Great Exception, he argued: The culture of California has two striking
characteristics: the willingness of the people to abandon the old ways, and . .
. the inventiveness, the quickness with which something new is devised.
McWilliams was neither the first nor the last writer to marvel at the strange
effect California has on the people it attracts, but he may still be the best
at describing the states constant rush toward change, its boom after boom,
each one convincing the inhabitants of a particular era that they live in a
time of unique peril and promise.
California is no ordinary state;
it is an anomaly, a freak, he wrote a century after the first of many
subsequent Gold Rushes and before Jack Kerouac or Charles Manson or the states
robust new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. In California you learn to wait
for the next explosion and, when it comes, you run as far and as fast as you can
and then dig in until the next explosion splits the air.
These explosions are a mixed
blessing, of course; they leave scars on the psyche and on the terrain, from
mountains hollowed out in search of gold to the fertile farmland now buried
beneath tract homes. When you see the transformation and remember what existed
before, the pain is visceral—as if California is slipping away, lost
finally beyond redemption.
And if that sense of rootless
slipping is true of the physical terrain, its even more true of the culture,
which has morphed through the decades in ways that baffled longtime inhabitants
(longtime in California being defined as long enough to see changes you
dislike). Imagine the trauma for good Iowans transplanted to Los Angeles,
earnestly recreating their settled Midwest, when hedonistic Hollywood
(de)flowered in the 1920s. California has been on the frontier of cultural and
social trends ever since, which is great if youre the explorer but
traumatizing if the new trends clash with your existing values.
What John Steinbeck wrote of
droughts in his Salinas Valley applies just as well to the states mood swings
between a belief that this is the Promised Land and a conviction that the
promise is broken once and for all: it never failed that during the dry years
the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all
memory of the dry years. It was always that way.
Always was and still is. In the
1960s, that now-hallowed age of wonder, the double whammy of growth and social disruption
led to publications with such names as Cry California and The
Destruction of California. Thirty years later, people inculcated with 60s
values looked at the frenzied reverberations of the dot-com boom and saw their
own version of the end times. This was true of the Bay Area in particular. San
Francisco has been for most of its 150-year existence both a refuge and an
anomaly. Soon it will be neither, Rebecca Solnit intoned solemnly in 2000s Hollow
City. She warned that bohemia may well go away altogether and
that all of San Francisco is being delivered vacant to the brave new
technology economy, and altruism and idealism are two of the tenants facing
Fast forward to the present: in
November 47 percent of San Franciscos voters wanted Green Party member Matt
Gonzalez to be mayor, suggesting that at least a few bohos and idealists
remain. Yet the same San Franciscans who embrace progressive politics vote to
ban panhandling; statewide, meanwhile, in the past decade voters have tried to
crack down on illegal immigrants and rein in university affirmative action
policies, but they also gave their blessing to marijuana use with a doctors
consent. As for Arnold Schwarzeneggers election, it is nothing so much as
confirmation of the cherished California belief that things would be great—again—if
they would just get out of the way. Whoever they are.
All of which is fertile ground
for writers, and the soil gets richer with each new element added to what is
perhaps the most multicultural society the world has ever seen. But what
doesnt change is the motivation of the migrants. They are drawn not simply by
wealth or a good job but because they are seduced—seduced by their
own dreams. They imagine this place, their California, will give them a chance
to have it all as they define all. Who can be surprised that the
world came to California and still wants to come here? Richard Rodriguez asked
in 1991. Restless lives are the point of life here . . . the newcomers gift
to California has always been the audacity of optimism and the assurance that
one can forget the past. Every newcomer who puts down roots keeps that
restless spirit alive—and extends it into the future.
Wallace Stegner put it a
different way twenty-five years before. Bigots, weve got em. Rebellious and
intransigent students, weve got em. Communists, fascists, Birchites, American
Nazis, religious cranks, crooks, drunks, junkies, weve got em . . .
California is a place where you find whatever you came looking for, and right
next to it that which you most hoped to avoid.
Californias ultimate lure. Here, anything is possible—except
the assurance that other people are like you. Or that you, or anyone else,
truly know what might loom next.
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