Tag Archives: california

Joan Didion on a bleached California

where-i-was-from-didion-joan-paperback-cover-artIt’s impenetrably white, her world, which to me explains this sentence:

Yet California has remained in some way impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma, as it has to many of us who are from there. We worry it, correct and revise it, try and fail to define our relationship to it and its relationship to the rest of the country. (38)

I don’t have a long and tortured history of wagon trains and leading pioneer families in my relationship to California of course. No grandmothers telling me what life is about in quite that way, no artifacts of long journeys. Some of this history, and its residues in these younger generations, was pretty damn interesting. I suppose it is also pretty damn interesting as a residue of homegrown philosophy amongst ‘us’ Californians, the ones who were white:

Stressing as it did an extreme if ungrounded individualism, this was not an ambiance that tended towards a view of life as defined or limited or controlled, or even in any way affected, by the social and economic structures of the larger world. To be a Californian was to see oneself…as affected only by “nature,” which in turn was seen to exist simultaneously as a source of inspiration or renewal…and as the ultimate brute reckoning, the force that by guaranteeing destruction gave the place its perilous beauty. (66)

Perhaps there were brief flashes when such optimism might have been shared by African Americans — a couple of decades before WWI but after that time white congressmen tried to pass legislation banning all black folks from the state entirely. Before the Klan got quite so popular in the mid 20s.

The genocide of Native Americans was quicker and more complete in California than in many another state, so I doubt their survivors ever felt this to be true.

There’s the difficult relationship with the aristocratic ‘Californios’ who had once themselves owned the land and enslaved indigenous peoples, and then there’s all of the mostly darker skinned ‘Mexicans’ (amongst other uglier names) who worked for them, many of whom had lived there for generations. The other Mexicans who came up for the agricultural and seasonal work and still come up. But now they stay, along with a whole lot more compañ[email protected] because that border and NAFTA is no joke.

We shouldn’t forget the Asian workers brought in to build railroads and pick oranges and grow crops, massacred in L.A., stripped of any ability to own land or become citizens until 1942. The Japanese thrown into concentration camps up and down the state in WWII. California’s history is not at all pretty, and it never was.

White pioneers did not just wrestle climate and geography and dangerous beasts, they came in (to varying extents) as conquerors and oppressors, which is precisely why they could say things like:

…We believed in fresh starts. We believed in good luck. We believed in the miner who scratched together one last stake…We believed in the wildcatter…Put out your campfire, kill the rattlesnake and watch the money flow in.  (128)

and on the same page, why some Californians might be in it all together (against the rest):

I asked my mother to what “class” we belonged.

“It’s not a word we use,” she said, “It’s not the way we think.” (128)

Because of course, there were a whole lot of Californians below class. Ah, the intersections of race and privilege.

I think it’s this foundation of violent privilege that California is built on that helps explain some of the other things Joan Didion wrestles with, like the 1990s point system for sexual conquests used in Lakewood High School, carried out by boys who called themselves the Spur Posse. It was exposed by a number of girls raped and sexually harassed who came forward. Brave of them, and horrifying the community response, and it’s the kind of thing that needs all kinds of light shining down on it. Light so bright you no longer get parents like Donald Belman, defending their child by describing how the D.A. “questioned all these kids, she found out these girls weren’t the victims they were made out to be. One of these girls had tattoos for chrissake.” (124)

I wish we could talk about reactions like that in the past tense.

I also liked that Didion touches on the shift in California away from free education for all (though she can’t really tell you why) and the real change that took place in the 1980s:

CA no longer feels ‘rich enough to adequately fund its education system.’ the second: ‘many towns in California…so impoverished in spirit as well as in fact that the way their citizens could think to reverse their fortunes was by getting themselves a state prison.”

She sees this is nothing new, just another ‘version of making our deal with the Southern Pacific…making our bed with the federal government.” (183)

I like that she sees that. The contrast between a state that thinks it made itself rich when in fact it took lots of government money, always did and still is. I hate she doesn’t deal with who makes up the majority of those imprisoned, and how they might have arrived there.

I also learned a bit about California’s treatment of mental illness, something I might follow up. Joan Didion cites Richard W. Fox’s study So Far Disordered in Mind: Insanity in California 1870-1930, which found that ‘California had a higher rate of commitment for insanity than any other state in the nation…’ (193)

That’s crazy (unless again, you think about the violence and the ongoing non-acknowledgment of violence). This is also crazy.

‘By the end of 1920, of the 3,233 sterilizations for insanity or feeblemindedness performed to that date throughout the United States, 2,258, or seventy-nine percent, had taken place in California. (195)

Like the prisons, they filled up to and beyond capacity in asylums. California was always big on putting people away apparently, even before three strikes.

This is an interesting book, beautifully written, but deeply infuriating in its blindness to certain things — interesting in itself, but I fear the propagation of such blindnesses.

[Didion, Joan (2004) Where I Was From: A Memoir. London: Harper Perennial.]

Save

Carrizo Plain

I woke up Sunday morning, fell back asleep, had a brilliant dream, woke up again, made coffee. It was a bit of a late night at Allegra’s house party the night before, reggaeton and some dancing, beer and a contact high. So I treated myself, and lay in bed reading The Urban Question by Manuel Castells and maybe dozed a bit more through that, it’s heavy going. Though good for a chuckle when he starts to rumble with Lefebvre if you’re an urban planning nerd like me…

And then Bev called to say they were heading north after all, so I threw on some clothes. Jeans and a T-shirt here in the LA sunshine, but by the time we arrived in Gorman on the I-5 it was snowing.

Snowing! I love the inconsistencies of snow in Southern California a short drive from home, and the brightly capped peaks that lie to the left of the 5.

I have no proof, I took shots of the wet flakes in vain, and nothing was sticking. But Gorman is coloured beautiful with flowers,

even though the poppies and trumpet flowers were closed up tight against the weather. Wish I had that ability as well, I took this shot through my tears, they were rolling down my cheeks from the cold of the wind. Needless to say I was not prepared for snow, though I did have a sweater. We drove the 5 and then down along the 166, past row upon row of grapes, peaches, citrus trees. Past oil derricks and the weathered wood of abandoned buildings and bridges with their twisted rusted metal. And up into the hills and down again onto Carrizo Plain.

It was a day of wide expanses, a world of sun and shadow. And salt flats. And flowers.

The great San Andrea’s fault runs down through the basin, plain to the view, and if California ever cleaves in two with half of it falling into the ocean? It will crack along this line, this understated source of seismic unrest and quaking earth. It’s quite extraordinary to think you could walk along this slight cleft in the ground and never know the power that lies beneath you.

The flowers, our reason for driving, were incredible carpets of yellow. Poppies were all hiding their heads and we only saw a few clumps of lupins, but the various sunflowers?

Dancing in the wind…exuberant, short lived, glorious. As we walked up this mountainside, crickets sprang from underfoot, hundreds of them, and they sang low and sweet and from all directions. And all of this is almost side by side with Soda lake. It is filled entirely by run off from its large basin, and sometimes dries almost completely. The water leaves an eerie beauty in its wake, mud encrusted with brilliantly white alkaline salts.

Death and life once again, I find them everywhere!

The drive back homeward was full of afternoon light and storm clouds, and great expanses of rolling hills that are one of the landscapes I love best.

And one of the best shots of the year below. The Pogues were playing, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die, black hell! Hell’s ditch.” And I don’t know I disagree, which gives an enormous sense of pleasure and transgression to be out in this beautiful world and joyful, a day stolen from the world’s ravages

The sun was setting as we drove through McKittrick, and then Buttonwillow, and I caught this shot of grower owner an operated gin, cotton gin I imagine! I remember reading about them in school though I’ve really no idea what a cotton gin does…still, cooperatives make me happy, especially when the sky is rosy and their surroundings beautiful.

We stopped to eat, and then drove back down over the grapevine, the dark sky carpeted with millions of stars the way it should be. And so while I could possibly name a couple of things that could make me happier with their presence, being happy is quite enough.

Apple Valley

Just got back from a little staff retreat at Highland Springs in Apple Valley…how much do I love the people I work with??  Thursday late morning we drove up and did a lot of work, then we swam, lay by the pool, relaxed in the sauna, ate a dinner we didn’t have to cook, played a little soccer, drank beers and margaritas and told a lot of very funny and very innapropriate stories (which I cannot relate here in mixed company) until really late.

I got up early in spite of the late night, the fact that I was still a little drunk probably helped with that, and went for a hike, it is such a beautiful place!  The path initially went straight up…here is one of the views:

And I believe this is what I would look like if I could ever find the courage to get up onto a pair of stilts…

Walked and ran back down, had breakfast, did some more work, swam, laid by the pool, relaxed in the sauna…mmm….lovely.

We had seen the signs for a cherry festival in Beaumont, so we decided to stop on the way back home and pick up some cherries, and some pies, and some funnel cake and who knew what else?  There was a little carnival but the first thing that met our eyes was this shining example of carnie culture…

And guess who else was there?

Yep…God.  We were pretty excited until we found out that not only was it $5 to get in, but that with all of our crazy weather, and possibly global warming, there were in fact no cherries.  Although tempted to pay $5 just to ask God how he could allow a tragedy like this to happen and possibly hit him in the eye, I sadly piled back into the car and Bev drove off.  At the edge of Beaumont we passed El Rancho restaurant and cocktails,

But  no one else was feeling the same uncontrollable urge to stop there and fill up on MGD so we continued on, back to home sweet home…

Disgusting que no?  Just imagine what the inside of my lungs looks like breathing in all of this crap!  Everytime I come back to LA I ask myself, why oh why do I live here?  Soon, soon I’ll be gone.  That little white flash of light middle left is Gehry’s Disney Hall by the way, isn’t it shiny?  I live about 10 blocks from there, in the heart of the smoggy darkness…

Save