The author with his kids, Encinitas, 1983. “Remember the ocean, where you guys made sand castles and the shorebirds we fed and the zoo and the killer whales at Se World, remember?”
I was trembling, tearing open the envelope, with its official return address, University of California, San Diego, Department of Music, Graduate Division. “I am happy to inform you,” it began — but didn’t I know the rest, hadn’t I known it in my gut for months, ever since I kissed and mailed the application, that my westering dream would, in fact, come true? “The Department of Music is recommending that you be admitted,” and then I couldn’t see the words, for I was crying and running to tell my wife and four-year-old twin sons: We’d be moving to Southern California.
The author. At 32,1 was an odd mix — maudlin, like my mother, but somewhat daring.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
I didn’t say that last bit right off. I read out the “offer”: Full-tuition scholarship, a teaching assistantship that would pay me $5000 a year, on the Ph.D. track and, in only five years, I’d be a bona fide Doctor of Music!
In his 1996 memoir, Blue Sky Dream: A Memoir of America's Fall from Grace, David Beers writes of growing up the son of a Lockheed engineer in California and his parents’ pivotal purchase of a home in a new housing tract in the early 1960s.
“What do you think?” I asked my wife. We had discussed the move some; she’d end with “We’ll see if you’re accepted.” Truth be told, we hadn’t been getting along well. The last two years had been tough. The reason was, the reasons were, kids, routine, income: It was difficult for me to find work, so we lived off her earnings. She was a weaver with a booming business. With more time on my hands, I pursued several commissions; one, music for a solo ballet dancer. But these rarely topped $200. A set of bunk beds cost that. She and I didn’t share incomes; everything was split, and she kept a tally. Arguments over money came and went.
Blue Sky Dream: A Memoir of America's Fall from Grace - Beers’s memoir marks California as a portal of dreams.
“If this is what you really want to do —” she said. We had been sleeping in the same bed but with a clearly maintained two-inch channel of space between us for months, or longer. I looked at her and the tears welled up again.
“I want us all to go so I can have a chance to make something of myself and so, because, I want us to stay together.” At 32,1 was an odd mix — maudlin, like my mother, but somewhat daring, a composer of both avant-garde and traditional music, like no one I knew. Too long in one place, one idea, and I needed a change. But, as I say, I was broke. It was February 1982: The 1980 recession, which put me out of a bookstore job, still lingered.
Joan Didion has laid bare how Californians have reinvented their identity.
On top of that, I was an Anglo stuck in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where we lived. I’d been reviewing music concerts for the newspaper once a week ($50 a pop) and scouring the Help Wanted ads. The good jobs were in state government or education, and those went to Hispanic-surnamed people, the Bacas and the Trujillos. You had to be Hispano even to wash dishes. To keep me afloat, my wife was paying me (actually, she was deducting it from my debt to her) to build a new fence around our house (actually, she owned it).
D.J. Waldie: “For nearly 150 years California has produced sublime and misleading nature photography."
“What do you boys think about moving to California?” my wife asked. In the fall, when school started, they’d be five and would begin kindergarten.
“Okay,” Jeremy said, a little too easily.
“It’s going to mean leaving your friends at the preschool,” she said.
“Okay,” he said again. He had such even-temper surety about everything.
“Remember the ocean,” I blurted out — we had visited San Diego the previous year, staying with my wife’s mother, who had relocated to Mission Beach — “where you guys made sand castles and the shorebirds we fed and the zoo and the killer whales at Sea World, remember?”
Holy Land: “92 percent of the residents believe this suburb is a desirable place in which to live.”
“That’s San Diego?” Blake, our other son, asked excitedly. “Okay,” he echoed Jeremy with a tad more enthusiasm.
I looked at her again, felt her wanting to go. In fact, one reason I applied was her desire to get free of her business. She and three other women had a weaving cooperative on Santa Fe’s famed Canyon Road. Their success (annual sales of $300,000) required intense organization, keeping books, employees, apprentices. At last, they hired an attorney to discuss who owned what, and everything got personal. Bickering ensued, until my wife suggested a breakup, which the others agreed to. Thus, my California dream my wife had seen as her opportunity too. Besides, her mother wanted her to come, told her she could sell her rugs and shawls at local craft fairs. (I’m not sure my wife needed money; she saved half of what she made, so she told me.)
Southern California: An Island on the Land - a journeyman history.
“Well, I guess we can try it,” she said, at last. With small conviction. I figured marshaling conviction was my responsibility. I also believed that if I was happy, she’d be happy. I gave her a hug and a twirl and did the same with our sons.
Two days later, she drove us to a Volvo dealer where she’d picked out a brand-new dark blue DL station wagon. “If we’re going to San Diego, we have to have a new car.” I said fine: What was $249 a month for four years. Our future in California would pay for everything.
Ramona - "romantic fluff."
Over the summer, we packed, held yard sales, painted the inside of the house, and I thought a lot about my dad, who had died in 1975. As a new father myself, I treasured his example: His marriage with Mom never lost its resolve, despite raising three sons and moving every five years for a new job. My obese older brother Steve was often out of control while I, the middle child, the “good son,” seldom acted out. To which my dad responded with tender directness. During the week he was absent a lot, off selling paper products. But when he was home, he’d take a long time tucking me in at night, asking me about my days playing baseball, making models, warming my cheek with his bristly one. It was a loving protection I never forgot.
So, the four of us and our new Volvo, towing a 12-foot U-Haul, drove west in early September and in three days beheld the Pacific Ocean. Near the end of the second day, we discovered the Salton Sea and looked on in Twilight Zonish horror at a phantom community with paved, named streets waiting for houses. The empty lots of Desert Shores looked as though either a very efficient tornado (and a Red Cross cleanup crew) had scraped the site clean or else the homes were invisible. I said to my wife that it was probably the latter: We needed to become citizens of the Golden State — Californianized — to see them. They were there. We just hadn’t materialized within the parallel realm. Yet.
That night, with an outside temperature of 100, we spent in luxurious motel air-conditioning. Next morning my wife announced her desire to enter San Diego via Route 78, which, we’d learn much later, was “the back way” in. She said it looked harmless enough on the map. I’m not sure, I said. Wouldn’t the interstate be safer? But this route, she said, would let us see the mountains. “You have to go slow anyway!”
I froze, shut my eyes, while the steam rose. How many times had she pecked at me to drive off the beaten path, search for a restaurant, an antique shop, a flea market. “Stop!” she’d say, “What’s that?” It was nothing, a garage sale, somebody’s junk. Once, two years earlier in Page, Arizona, she had me idle while she inquired at four different $30-a-night motel rooms for the best bed — the kids, meanwhile, squealing in their car seats—then she effervesced when the cheapest, the $28 one, had the firmest mattress. And her, with all the money. That argument came and went with us not speaking for three days.
So we started straining up Banner Grade to Julian, and the car-and-tow groan seemed like Hannibal’s elephants climbing the Alps. The more the Volvo’s motor roared, the more intensely I glared at her. But what good was glaring? If the car blows up, the car blows up. She’d buy another. It was hard but I forced myself to think that the only way we’d make it was to put the past behind us, let go of the old patterns, start over. Miraculously, the glare lessened. In its place came a sort of surprised love. There must be under the boil of marriage a good deal of trust in her for me, for us, to accomplish this. Maybe it wasn’t that bad. Maybe in the land of sun-kissed maids we might dose those two nighttime inches between us. What was two inches!
During “pledge week,” KPBS usually broadcasts a travelogue video, San Diego: Above All, which you receive for donating $120 per year. The program features helicopter flyby views of San Diego’s neighborhoods, parks, shorelines, buildings, monuments, outlying towns, Indian reservations, and more. It’s lustful geography: Even the snaky freeways appear to have more purpose than what we experience oozing along at 35 mph. The motion picture camera sweeps across golf courses and reservoirs, carriers docked at Coronado, eroded coastal cliffs, tranquil tracts of suburbia. And the Alexander Scourby-like narrator insists (as does the welling New Age music) that we’re all San Diegans. This “postcard come to life” is our home; its canyons and caminos, its beaches and bays. its mercados and multiculturalism—all of it, every last phosphorescent drop, utterly serene and reposed.
Sure, I feel it But I don’t buy it. Any scenery appears uncomplicated, photographed from above on a clear August day. The helicopter, enraptured with its passerby nature, sees nothing of individual lives, histories, desires. The whiskey-coated voice can only adorn. “It is this sense of peace and the beauty of paradise that makes San Diego unlike any other place. It is what makes us love living here. It is what makes us San Diegans.” Yes, but lots of other places have sun and ocean, pleasant days and nights, golf courses and suburban tracts. What exactly is our unlikeness to “any other place” that “makes us love living here”? To distinguish this locale requires much more than flying over. It requires listening in on the private thoughts of those troubled and contented souls below, in the eucalyptus-fringed enclaves.
Eureka! is the state motto: “I have found it.” A phrase perfect for Californians, it testifies to the search for something personal, whether one is born here or motors in on Interstate 8. But what is that it we found? Was it something already here? Something we brought with us? Something entirely different from what we expected to find? I have always wanted to ask these questions of myself and of other writers for whom Southern California was home or destination. Perhaps our answers, displayed like gems under glass, will make my tale, 18 years after arriving, a little less lonely to recall.
In his 1996 memoir, Blue Sky Dream: A Memoir of America's Fall from Grace, David Beers writes of growing up the son of a Lockheed engineer in California and his parents’ pivotal purchase of a home in a new housing tract in the early 1960s. There, the father, Hal Beers, helps create what his son, the author, calls a “tribe” of postwar aerospace pioneers whose growth and decline has epitomized California’s recent past. These people are attracted by the homes, schools, services, and lifetime jobs being orchestrated for them. They also come because such ready-made cohesion means joining a community of self-interests. For the men, engineering, for the women, raising families.
Beers recalls his father taking him up in an airplane to look down at their new home.
My father had made a down payment on a newly built four-bedroom tract house with enough yard, enough land, to be visible from the sky, and so today he naturally thought I’d be excited to come along with him for an aerial view of where we’d made a place for ourselves. But now I am looking hard and I cannot locate our lives amidst all the sameness below, and that is what terrifies me....
That is what terrifies, and instructs. A child absorbs such a vision and begins to sense, at some level, the imperative of making a bigger meaning of things. I wonder whether all these people living just like me might be my people—all of us, perhaps, with some shared story. I wonder whether the pattern below might be a mass of connections joining me to some whole.
Indeed, the theme of Beers’s book is “joining...to some whole.” But first, the image of home, in its larger context, must be instilled. So, at the appointed hour, Beers’s mother is waiting to wave at her husband and son as they fly over.
“See the church there? The cross?” Yes, I saw it “And over there, those big letters, that’s Shopwell.” Yes, I saw our supermarket now. “There it is, Dave, there’s the house, juuuuuust about right below us.” Yes, I was happily relieved to say, I could see the house — our house, our station wagon parked out front, our cul-de-sac, our back yard. I could see my mother, too, a speck marking our spot in the pattern of the whole, waving to us in the sky.
The aerospace workers arrive in droves, in the age of Sputnik and U-2, so that America might answer the Russian threat missile-a-missile. They work for “Aerojet and Convair and Ford Aerospace and Hughes and Litton and Lear Siegler and McDonnell-Douglas and Northrop and Rockwell and RAND and TRW and the United States Air Force Space Division and all the hundreds of subcontractors that serve them as well as many key military bases and universities.” Drawing them in further is an ad blitz that runs regularly in popular magazines and “showed pictures of blossoming orchards in ‘California’s All-Year Garden’ ” or brochures that claimed “ ‘people here feel more fit because they live more healthful lives...and the average youngster is a few inches taller and a few pounds heavier than his counterpart in most other sections’ of the country.”
Hal Beers works on a host of satellite programs, all hush-hush, never discussed with the family. To talk of it (he is given frequent lie-detector tests) would mean losing his job. Hal Beers survives the downturn in aggressive military expenditures after Vietnam by building satellites, which the son believes “take pictures that make it possible to verify nuclear treaties” and, in effect, “prevent nuclear war.” To which his father replies, “Have you ever considered that the same satellite used to verify a treaty might also be used to pinpoint enemy targets for an all-out first strike? With the aid of satellites, those targets were picked long ago and they are constantly being updated. Insane, I know. But you can bet on it.” David’s response to such antithetical in the weapon makers’ psyche — “I was out of my depth.”
As a young man, David revolts against the father and the corporate culture that raised him. He goes to work for any social-justice cause he can find—civil rights, Appalachian poverty, the degradation of poor people’s environments. (In this we find “America’s fall from grace,” as the subtitle indicates.) When Reagan announces his Star Wars initiative in 1983, again engaging the expertise of Hal Beers, David believes such spending will bankrupt the United States while refueling the Cold War. He responds by leaving for Central America, where he hopes to join others and, in a small way, foil Reagan’s “low-intensity” conflicts.
But eventually Beers comes home, unable to keep raging against the machine. Curiously, he misses home, its contradictions and its privileges.
As a child of aerospace I had grown up favored by every Congress and presidents Democratic and Republican alike, had been designated a winner in America’s militarized economy from the day I was born, had traded on that privilege all through my young adult life, which happened to coincide with the era of Ronald Reagan. As one of the favored I had been free to slip in and out of the worlds of ghetto students and Maya refugees and Caribbean dirt farmers and soot-inhaling foundry workers, free to wander that landscape of misfortune and then step away, whenever I wished, for a Zen Buddhist brunch by the bay or a coffee with my family in a Santa Barbara cafe.
Beers discovers that his choice to help the dispossessed was never inhibited by his father’s career in the defense industry. On the contrary. Hal Beers’s secrecy and conformity paved the way for his children to value openness and individual freedom. In the end, David, his brother, and his sister see themselves as “variations on who you might be if you had ‘flourished’ as a boy or girl in blue sky suburbia but had been given no encouragement to replicate life within the tribe. None of us was ever given cause to imagine a desk for [ourselves] within the windowless walls of Lockheed.”
Beers’s memoir marks California as a portal of dreams, whose latest grand opening comes after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since 1990, most of the moribund aerospace manufacturers have reinvented themselves as information-based technologies. Today we believe the old-world economy can be recycled into a new one with less pain than we imagined. And, if one industrial template can change, surely the individual can.do likewise. This culture of renewal is what keeps drawing people to Southern California. For those of us who migrated here in recent decades, we, too, believed that the Golden State would grant us its agency to make changes if, for no other reason, than we were here, where Hal Beers had once flown over with his son and decreed the place home.
In San Diego, in September 1982, we rented a small house in Encinitas, half a block from Neptune Avenue and the cliffs that looked out to the Pacific. On many nights our home was nestled in a thick fog. In the steep front yard two avocado trees grew, their waxy leaves hiding the ripe black fruit. Ever broke, I told my wife that I need not buy lunches. I’d make avocado sandwiches every day. She smiled that half-smile of hers.
Each day I traveled down the Coast Highway to UCSD, taught basic musicianship, studied composition both electronic and atonal, shut myself up in a practice room with a piano, and wrote abstract music. To get there I rode the 301, the local bus. If I could, I’d take the Express, which raced down I-5 to the Veterans Hospital. I began noticing abundances; for example, the miles and miles of oleander in the middle of the freeway. Never watered, they were flattopped once a year. And still they bloomed and flourished, so densely that, despite auto fumes and Caltrans’ inattention, they blocked out the whizzing vehicles on the other side. I was the sort of composer who mulled over such an emblem (“oleander dichotomy indicative of S.D.”) until the phrase became, in my mind, a seed for a piece of music.
The idea of freeway oleander, its value as restraint and freedom, cropped up elsewhere. I was reading a book on the history of film music. Aaron Copland, one of the American composers I most admired, had worked in Hollywood off and on between 1939 and 1949. There, in a trailer on the studio lot, he wrote the first two of his sue film scores, the sublime music for Our Town and Of Mice and Men. After these assignments, however, Copland announced that he’d be returning to his home in New York City. The producers growled and whined: How could you leave all this money and opportunity, this sunshine and ease in which to create? For one, he said he didn’t want to be isolated as other Tinseltown composers were: “There seemed to be an idea,” he wrote, “that once one went to Hollywood, he was lost forever to the rest of the music world!” For another, he remarked that Hollywood spawned too much temptation.
No doubt Copland was plenty tempted living in New York and Paris. So, how was the West Coast any different? He didn’t say. Did he mean sex, money, fame? If he meant those things, were they opposed to work? I desired California as a place to be tempted, by work and one day (with degree and commissions) by money. Copland himself said movie money allowed him to write chamber music, which didn’t pay, so he, too, returned to score another four films.
On the bus, Copland’s misgivings preoccupied me. Lost forever? Too much temptation? Though I understood the composer’s fear of physical separation from the East Coast musical establishment—surely, this was much less a problem in our technological age — I couldn’t conceive of temptation as being “too much.” In fact, to feel the temptation of place existed nowhereI had ever lived. Raised in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Missouri, I knew firsthand how many had left those parts for the lure of the coasts. (Later I would read Glenway Westcott’s aphorism for my boyhood region, the Middle West: “A state of mind of people born where they do not like to live.”) I was enraptured by what was called North County: backyard lemon trees; bicycle lanes; blond and bronzed young women in tank tops who sweated at soccer or dug their feet in the sand at volleyball games; beach-fire smells at Moonlight Beach where I walked the kids; Hawaiian shirts at weddings; the salty, fungal air. What was the thread? One of the first things I overheard about our new home came from a man responding to another man who was criticizing this locale for having no culture. “San Diego has a culture,” he said. “It just so happens to be a physical one.”
That first month of our arrival, the Santa Ana wind was in cruel force. To escape the heat, we’d go to the beach via Stone Steps, a vertical 100-foot concrete walkway to the sand not far from our house. We passed muscle-toned young men and women who, with rhythmic breathing, jogged up the steps as we lugged our towels and chairs, buckets and shovels down.
One afternoon, with my wife reading and our boys creating boat canals in the sand, I waded into the warm, greenish water. Copper-colored seaweed strands snaked by my bald pink knees as I slogged deeper. The waves rose higher, rushing under my arms, then lifted me, turned me around. There I could see the 100-foot cliffs of the coastline, the stately bluff houses with backyards dropping off or fringed with hanging ice plant, an uneven row of palm trees towering above the cliffs, and there, on the beach, my family, minuscule and ordinary.
I floated a moment on the waves and thought how we had made it to California, a journey that my father had once dreamed of. Dad had wanted to live in San Francisco after the war. But Mother nixed the idea; she insisted on living one day’s drive from her mother in Illinois. Now, with my brother Steve in Wisconsin, my brother Jeff in Atlanta, and Mom back in Ohio, I’d become the westering one. I thought about our journey to San Diego as geographic history, second (in the annals) to the transatlantic immigration of my mother’s Swedish grandparents. In the next century, my sons would-ribbon some honor on the migration of their pioneering parents. The middle-western-ness of my past had often felt like a great captivity, the Israelites trapped in Egypt. But here I was, floating free from the Pharaoh.
I looked back again; the coastline was suddenly much smaller, binocular. My feet plunged for bottom. Nothing. Then a wave ran under me, diabolically, while the steely surface waffled and barely sputtered. Though I knew how to swim, I was frightened. I started my arms moving, careful not to panic. This was nothing like the lakes of my Wisconsin boyhood, where the water’s energy was neutral. The ocean had intent.
I swam harder, felt disoriented. Was I swimming in place? I wasn’t getting anywhere. Rolling on my back, I tried kicking, motorboat-style. But the quaking water sloshed in my face and mouth. I spit out the brine. It smelled of fresh crabmeat.
Now I swam as hard and as fast as I could. I glimpsed my tiny family on the shore, who were unaware I was fighting for life. I swam hard again, felt the seaweed entangle my legs. I frantically kicked free. All this felt scripted: The ocean would torture then kill me.
A huge wave lifted my body, the seawater running its foam up my nose, and then, as quickly as the panic set in, my toes touched mud. Suddenly I was standing up and the water was rushing back into itself through my trembling thighs. The ocean had spared me.
I stumbled up the shore. “Jesus, I almost drowned!” I was panting, spitting, palming my face. “I couldn’t swim my way out. The water took me,” pant, “where it wanted to,” pant, pant, “then threw me on the shore.”
The boys looked up. Then, just as fast, returned to buzzing their lips, running their toys in their elaborate sand canals.
“You weren’t going to drown,” she laughed, or snickered, I wasn’t sure which. “And besides, you’re in no shape, Tom, to be swimming in the ocean.”
“God, I almost died out there.”
“And you could care less.” Now she did snicker, then got up, cast those cold brown eyes at me. “You have no idea what I care about Don’t assume anything. ” The cut felt intentional. “C’mon, boys,” she said to the kids, “let’s go home and I’ll make us some dinner.” Okay, so I was in lousy shape — overweight, 30 unfiltered cigarettes a day, no exercise. But who asked her opinion? If the surfer Adonises we passed mocked me, there wasn’t any blame attached. I hated her for pinning the tail on the donkey: Midwest to a fault, I was out of place. My sons had inherited their mother’s skinny frame and stomach. They tanned easily; they didn’t squint like me, the Nordic one, who was different. Which she’d remind them of. I’d hear her talking to Blake or Jeremy sometimes, “You’re just like your father, aren’t you,” when they weren’t cooperating.
Towel around my neck, huffing up those steps of stone alone, I started thinking that my sons must have their own sense of California’s bounty, and I hadn’t bothered to ask them about it. They seemed to like it here, to revel in the ocean, the cool nights, the pull of the outdoors. They wanted to go to Sea World, the new Wild Animal Park, eat fish and chips at Captain Keno’s. I wanted them to be happy as much as they wanted me to be. So, getting back, I played Legos with them on the front porch. We talked about more fun things to do. After dinner, we assembled another fleet of spaceships until bedtime when, once the night fog tendriled in through the louvered-open window of the back door, I was snuggling them in their bunk beds, above, cheek-on-cheek to Jeremy, below, cheek-on-cheek to Blake, promising them outings every weekend and telling them everything was fine, things were fine so dose to so much. Trouble was, I suspected neither really believed me.
While David Beers and his father were flying over incorrupt suburbs, Joan Didion had already begun analyzing what would be her lifelong theme, the Golden State’s changing self-image. In her books Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), The White Album (1979), and After Henry (1992), collections of essays and articles that first appeared in Life, New West, the New Yorker, and other publications, Didion has laid bare how Californians have reinvented their identity, especially as development has buried history during the last 40 years. New West Coast versions of memory, progress, community, family, marriage, and the dream itself have needed rewriting, and Didion has been their unsentimental chronicler.
A Sacramento native, now 65, she has centered her explorations on Los Angeles and its illusion-riddled culture, politics, celebrity, criminal trials, and news organizations. She writes with reserve, a dry wit, a meditative self-absorption, and an insider’s authority about some of the most notorious headliners—Charlie Manson, Patty Hearst, John Wayne, Joan Baez, Lakewood’s “Spur Posse,” and the several generations of the Chandlers, publishers of the Los Angeles Times. In her California writing, she is what critic Barbara Lounsberry calls “an angelic rattlesnake in our blighted Eden.” “Didion repeatedly insists that California’s history and geography instill a specific perspective in Californians widely misunderstood by those not native to the terrain.” Didion’s self-dramatizing prose style seems to have sprung fully formed in her first essays, among them “Notes from a Native Daughter” (1965). Here she speaks directly to readers through the conflicted sensibility of the person she knows best, herself. Of growing up the fifth-generation daughter of Sacramento ranchers, she writes,
...my own childhood was suffused with the conviction that we had long outlived our finest hour. In fact that is what I want to tell you about: what it is like to come from a place like Sacramento. If I could make you understand that, I could make you understand California and perhaps something else besides, for Sacramento is California, and California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.
When Didion moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, she spotlighted the avidity with which newcomers lugged in their happiness-at-any-cost “lifestyles.” In “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” (1966) Didion profiles a seedy murder — a wife cheats on a deeply-in-debt husband and is then convicted of burning him alive in a staged car wreck for a life-insurance payoff — which the author terms a “literal interpretation of Double Indemnity.” She suggests that California’s dreamy expansiveness is as liable for the crime as the female killer.
The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past. Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average  and where one person in every 38 lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new lifestyle, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspaper.
Didion’s spookiest prose comes from the essay “The White Album” (1968-1978), a near-levitating reminiscence of a darkly hip L.A. during the summer of die Manson family. To read this piece (made eerily flat by the passivity of the sentences) is to feel the lethargy of an already jaded paradise.
Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of “sin” — this sense that it was possible to go “too far” and that many people were doing it — was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full. On August 9,1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were 20 dead, no, 12, 10, 18. Black masses were imagined and bad trips blamed. I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.
Didion has painted the new California of the 1990s as a place of wholesale changes accompanied by fresh paradoxical effects: The new alienation that young people embraced after defense-plant and military-base closures; the new cronyism between one-time adversaries, the media and local politicians. She notes that the main effect of a population doubling in one generation has meant more development, which, surprise, has attracted more people and, surprise, more development. New prisons, freeways, freeway-close condos, neighboring strip malls, and theme parks, put up, in part, to alleviate the pressure of overbuilding, instead end up cramming more of us into less space. In sum, Didion renders the backlash against such seeming indiscriminate deterioration as a new icon: an “aggressive disidentification with Los Angeles,” where L.A. is “fragmenting more than coalescing.” She writes,
The logic here was based on the declared imperative of unlimited opportunity, which in turn dictated unlimited growth. What was construed by people in the rest of the country as accidental — the sprawl of the city, the apparent absence of a cohesive center— was in fact purposeful, the scheme itself this would be a new kind of city, one that would seem to have no finite limits, a literal cloud on the land that would eventually touch the Tehachapi range to the north and the Mexican border to the south, the San Bernardino Mountains to the east and the Pacific to the west; not just a city finally but its own nation, the Southland.
One notes that an unidentified San Diego is grouped with those “to the south.” Still, I suspect most San Diegans experience the purposeful scheme in our locale as well: We are sprawl, no different from LA. We’d like to think — as Los Angelenos do — that our sprawls are separate. In fact, as recent as 1989 Didion noted 50 percent of those polled by the Los Angeles Times said they thought of leaving Los Angeles “mainly for San Diego.” Maybe lots of them did “drop everything” and move south. Perhaps a few found a garden less spoiled. For a time. But any meaningful distinction between here and there is, anymore, superfluous.
While journalist-historians like Barry Farrell, Mike Davis, and Richard Rodriguez have forcibly critiqued Southern California’s rabid growth, none of them has pushed the personal envelope as strongly as Didion has. There is no truth, she seems to say, that reflects our region’s tribulations without a matching self-disclosing honesty. Indeed, Didion’s gift is her longevity, to be now in her fifth decade reporting and meditating on her responses to the Southland’s troubles. I would wager that more people, even without reading her work, share her existential uncertainty about this, our home, than assent to the more popular trends like union rights, environmentalism, tax revolt, or utopian belief. What Didion finds ongoing in California is that her own ambiguities about living here have solidity and purpose, even as the enigmas of L.A. and beyond grow thornier. She signs off on the memo that says to survive here one needs a healthy cynicism, a cautious ambivalence, traits that most Californians embody and value.
Gazing out my bus window, on my way to school, I’d quit thinking about Copland's choices. Instead, I was trying to figure out exactly how this fan-palm paradise would save our marriage. Since I still believed it could. A big uneasy, though, was turning itself over in my stomach. It was all happening too quickly; things felt compelled to be done, not wished. The bus driver drove as fast as he could in order to be on time. The Department of Music had accepted me, but that anointed feeling vanished after Welcome Week. We dozen new composers had to produce new work, this quarter. Concerts were scheduled, rehearsals planned. The musicians I’d need had to be chosen. To write, free from worry, was the goal, but concentration was difficult. “Someone should hear all this,” I said out loud on the bus home, staring at my image in the glass. Next day I was told that marriage counseling was available free at the university.
Before our first session, my wife and I enrolled the kids in kindergarten and their inevitable path into public school. Neither she nor I, though, fretted over the transition. Blake and Jeremy had already been socialized at preschool, knew how to share, knew the consequences of not sharing. “Time out,” we called it.
“Will we have ‘time out' in kindergarten?” Blake asked.
“Oh, probably,” I said.
“Will we have fun in kindergarten like we did in preschool?” Jeremy asked.
“Fun? Man, you'll play and do numbers and draw and read and line up and work together on projects,” I said. “It's the best time of all, kindergarten.”
How uncomplicated it felt, leaving them shy of 7:45, as though a clearing had been reached and the two were running ahead and we, their tired parents, would catch up later. My wife and I watched, standing opposite beside our car doors. What fine new dreamers they were! Sun-yellowed towheads, deepening tans, curious dispositions. They wore different-colored but same-styled new shirts (gifts from my mother), which united them, made them more than mere brothers. Up the short sidewalk they went, the two moseying together, Jeremy a tad taller than Blake, now the half-a-whole doctrine of twinship an enviable fact: They had a friend on that first day of school when most kids broke with their parents and entered on their own.
At our counseling session, we met Taylor, a pro-foot-ball-big man and an M.F.C.C., Marriage, Family, and Child Counselor. His cheeks and neck were coarse like sandpaper, scratched, I wondered, in tune to the crises his clients brought him. We said, no, neither of us had ever seen a counselor. He said his specialty was being direct. “I take it,” Taylor then said to my wife, “you're not comfortable about being in this room.” He spied the trouble right off.
“You got that right.” Asked to elaborate, she said after years of us getting nowhere, she didn't see how to repair the marriage. Her main bother had always been my failure to earn money. She was not unhappy with the move west. She wanted California for the boys' sake, the schools and the outdoors. She wanted to see her mother more. Being an independent artist was important too. She relished weaving as she pleased, with no more business headaches. She went on and on about herself so much that she actually seemed quite comfortable with counseling. Taylor listened and concurred, if that’s what he was doing, with everything she said.
For my turn, I talked about the same things I’d always talked about: This was my one opportunity to become a professional whose degree would mean a career and, eventually, a good salary as a university professor. With a dead-on future, I needed her to help me get there.
Taylor interrupted, asking us, “What about sex?” I wondered if he, like everyone else in flesh-happy California, didn’t have sex on the brain.
I stared at him. My wife was silent.
“Well, that about explains it,” he said. He told us that we might learn something essential by exposing our physical selves to each other, admittedly, a vulnerable spot, he understood, but “a true indicator of your deepest feelings. Don’t rush. Try it, see what happens, and come back.”
We did. The sex and the return visit.
“Well?” Taylor asked. He seemed to enjoy this voyeuristic role. And I was finally getting a clue: Part of California life meant allowing professionals — read, strangers — their enjoyment in knowing your most intimate details. The other part was getting used to it. The goal always was to say what we felt.
“It fizzled,” she said of our night before an avocado-wood fire. “I sort of lay there like a mummy and didn’t feel much of anything.”
Taylor said, “Good Tom?”
“It was okay,” I said. “We didn’t do it, but we were taking the time to be close. And I liked that.” What I’d actually felt was a clammy embarrassment; I was afraid of approaching her because I was certain she’d reject my body. I had worn a T-shirt until she said take it off.
I continued “I know it will take time for us to be like we once were. I’ll be working on my Ph.D. here, which will one day get me out of debt” — hadn’t I said this already? —“and make me less self-focused I want her to know that I have to be self-focused in order to make it. I stuck it out through her success in Santa Fe.”
“Is that true?” Taylor asked.
She replied it was.
“Do you think you should stick it out for him?”
She replied that part of her did.
“Does that part want to?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I do know,” and she paused, careful not to cry (I did the crying in this relationship), “my whole adult life, ever since I was 15, there has always been a man around. On the phone, on a date, in the car, in the bed, always, always a man to take care of. I have never had a break from being with a man and taking care of him. Whether it’s with sex or emotionally or with money. I watched my mother go through the same thing. The truth is, I don’t know if I can want it anymore.”
This I had never heard before. This, being damned as a gender, one more in the chain, each link wearing thinner at the point of contact, now no different from her first husband, the man I’d replaced. I said I felt similar, wearied of the struggle to be equal, find things in common, lighten our possessiveness of the kids. But none of that was because she was a woman. Besides, giving up was not the answer. “Not my answer,” I self-corrected.
“Tom,” she said, “it is less you than us I want my freedom from. Can you understand that?” Now, she was crying.
“What else is there but us?”
“There’s me, there’s the boys,” she said hastily.
“That’s selfish bullshit. I think all you want is to be free of me.”
“That’s true,” she said at the same moment that Taylor was telling me not to tell her what I think she wants. Say what I wanted, what I felt, he said.
“What I want is not to lose my children. That’s what I want!” This admission stunned me. It had made sense for a time when I said that I wanted us to stay together, fearing I’d be losing her and the children, yet this made a different kind of sense when I said that I wanted not to lose my children, because it didn’t include her.
Therapy was exhausting and Taylor stopped it there. We agreed to talk more with him in two weeks. But I was fearful, already overloaded with classes to teach, music to write. My days were packed. Driving home, I fixed my eyes again on the oleander, that unending single leafy green hedgerow with its white-rose-purple blur, racing by us on the freeway. Picking up the boys at school, we each took a son aside at lunch and lied about our day.
D.J. Waldie is an award-winning writer, a city planner for the city of Lakewood, and a devotee of the suburbs. Philosophically, he’s a contrarian, believing Southern Californians’ identity arises less from our westering or western-bred individuation than from the actual site plans of the communities we inhabit. For him So Cal is a mass: Suburban connectivity defines us, for good and ill. Waldie’s ideas are complex and take careful explanation. One place to start is to reflect on his recent review of Farewell Promised Land: Waking from the California Dream by Gray Brechin and Robert Dawson. Waldie writes that the California dream of limitless personal and territorial advancement, from the Gold Rush to the New Age, has been the most wrongheaded notion ever foisted upon a people, most of whom have arrived because of the P.R.
“For nearly 150 years,” Waldie says, “California has produced sublime and misleading nature photography, from William Henry Jackson in the 1870s, through Ansel Adams in the 1950s, to the latest Sierra Club calendar. Beautifully composed photographs of the Yosemite Valley hang over the state like a glowing billboard, promoting the view that an untouched and redemptive wildness is the real California.” The “real” California is, in Waldie’s words, not this “aesthetic privilege that leaves no room for the rest of us” but “our tangled lack of abstraction and our resistance to the grid of ideology.” What does he mean? I think he means that what is real about “the rest of us” has never conformed to the salesman’s image. Rather, the “real” is “tangled” and, thus, unbeknownst to us, something no alluring image can represent: “It’s possible to change your faith, your community, and your family in California whenever you want. You can’t so easily change the location of a flood-control channel, a landfill, a freeway, or a suburb.”
Our lack of abstraction our resistance to the grid. Who we are is the very thing we lack: an understanding of the grid and why we resist it. Waldie’s acclaimed 1996 book, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, examines how his own life embodies resistance to and acceptance of his parents’ suburban life while also delineating (helped by the graphic composition of the book) the grid itself, that is, the construction of the subdivision. Lakewood is his grid—a postwar community near the defense plants in Long Beach and Waldie’s lifelong home. For years, Lakewood has seemed to some a prison of conformity. A bad thing for outsiders, apparently. But not for Waldie. He leisurely walks its safe straight blocks every day. He revels at the hardy trees, the storm drain’s efficiency, the noisy boulevards that send nonresidents past. He feels at home in a mass seen by passersby as soulless. Most agree with him, for few move away. If they do, their houses sell for premium prices. “In the city’s most recent opinion survey ,” Waldie notes, “92 percent of the residents believe this suburb is a desirable place in which to live.”
Waldie’s 180-page book is divided into 316 segments; its very brief sections narrate a factual report and a personal tale. Many segments merely list — water tables, purchase prices, soil mixtures, developer profiles, the layout of the streets designed in Seville 500 years ago and carried o’er the bounding main by Spanish city planners. There are also photographs, marking Lakewood’s home-building history. All were sold, sometimes several thousand in one day, before they were erected. For Waldie, Lakewood is an organic system, so efficacious that it almost doesn’t matter who lives there.
Holy Land is also a testament to subdivisional ideology. The author relishes the city’s lack of change, the fact that structurally it hasn’t changed since its inception, and won’t change. He wants Lakewood to possess the placeness of, say, a Midwestern small town, fabled for its enduring simplicity. Most of all, Waldie wants not to apologize for Lakewood. An example:
The critics of suburbs say that you and I live narrow lives.
I agree. My life is narrow.
From one perspective or another, all our lives are narrow. Only when lives are placed side by side do they seem larger.
This is section 172: Its own thought, in its own segment— a 50-by- 100-foot lot, an 1100-square-foot house, a street address, which is no better and no worse, no more and no less valuable than its neighbor. Commonality is a good thing: The people in Lakewood, California, and, by extension, those in thousands of similar suburbs like their lives, like their yards, like the repeatability, the close-yet-distant proximity to neighbors and shopping centers, the sun-drenched calm, all of which Waldie reiterates is “holy” because it comprises “little that distinguish[es] any of us living here.”
But it does matter who lives in these communities, for central planning rarely ameliorates the personal struggle, certainly not Waldie’s: This town crier can’t quite understand why Lakewood has him. His fragmentary personal story seems to hold the reason: He has lived -there all his life and is not moving; he’s a somewhat devoted Catholic; he has much unexpressed rage with his dad, first as a father, second as a more stringent Catholic than he himself has been; he lives alone after the death of his parents in their home; and, besides (or because of) all that, he keeps Lake-wood running smoothly. Yet, despite his loyalty, he seems to have gone in his life as far as he can go. A latter-day pilgrim lodged in the settlement of his family’s crusade. Indicative of his “condition,” Waldie writes about himself sometimes in first person, other times, as in this passage (section 60), in third.
He could not choose to deny his father, even less his father’s beliefs. These have become as material to him as the stucco-over-chicken-wire from which these houses are made.
It is not a question of denying the city in which he lives, though he doubts his father cared much for living in it. He doubts if his father cared for much of anything you would find familiar at all.
“I am still here,” he often tells himself. This is how he has resurrected his father’s obligations, which he sometimes mistakes for his father’s faith.
“I will never go away,” he once told the girl he loved, because it suited her desperation and his notion of the absurd.
Loving Christ badly was finally the best he could do.
There’s a self-punishing wound here, which, in my mind, the orderly subdivision continues to pathologize. For Waldie to leave might mean giving up his fascination with, and bondage to, his aloneness. Otherwise, he returns to shoring up the seawall of abstraction. Section 215.
The grid limited our choices, exactly as urban planners said it would. But the limits weren’t paralyzing.
The design of this suburb compelled a conviviality that people got used to and made into a substitute for choices, including not choosing at all.
There are an indefinite number of beginnings and endings on the grid, but you are always somewhere.
I’m not sure what’s being said. Is there the implication that humans need a grid in order to humanize (i.e., not kill) each other? Do our communities exist only to harness comfort and security, then merely teach each new generation how to acquire more? Wade deep into Waldie’s memoir and you feel him resisting and desiring sameness, ultimately, digging himself a deeper reductivist hole. The book is radically original, fragmenting thought into mini-episodes and sound bites to capture our present one-per-son-per-car existence. And yet, because of these multiple abstract snippets, the result never quite develops the author’s difference, as one outside the many. Which may be the point.
“The houses,” Waldie writes, “are close enough so that you might hear, if you listened, a neighbor’s baby cry, a father arguing with a teenage son, or a television playing early on a summer night.... Most things here are close enough for comfort.” Oh, the comfort and sameness of our suburban life! And oh, that most of us don’t even know how encased in it we are! The housing tracts’ self-appointed favorite son proclaims the land holy, and, surely, one unintended consequence is to draw even more minions to the golden land. And still they come. For Waldie they come to play anonymity off abundance. Maybe they’ll win big on a quiz show, maybe their e-commerce start-up will take off. If not, they’ll still have a radical similarity of home, block, and freeway on-ramp. Awareness and blindness in one’s aloneness may be the choicest creation of the grid.
“Come on, now,” Taylor said to my wife, 20 minutes into our next session. “You brought something with you today that you still haven’t said. What is it?”
“I can’t continue. I’m living a lie,” she said. “I want him gone, I want it — ” and her hand sliced karate-like through the air, “over.”
“You liar,” I hollered. “You knew this would happen.”
“She’s been trying to tell you that for some time, Tom,” Taylor said.
“Why didn’t you tell me before we got here? You moved to California knowing you wanted a divorce, didn’t you?”
“Divorcing you has occupied my mind every day of my life for the past two years.” There it was, the truth, finally out. I should have been shocked. But I knew it was true somewhere in all my desire not to know it was. “I’m not leaving,” I yelled. “I am not leaving my children with you. You can’t throw this away.”
“Tom, Tom, listen.” Taylor pulled his chair close to me, touching my knee. “You’ve got to hear what she’s saying. She no longer wants to be married to you. I know you want to keep working at it. But she’s saying she refuses to help the marriage go on. She wants it to be over, not a separation, but a divorce. Do you hear her? What we are doing here is helping you two communicate. What you haven’t been communicating. Do you hear what she’s saying?”
“Of course I hear her.” My palms were soaked with wiped tears. “But why is it that the end of our marriage is subject only to what she wants? Why can’t she find a way to save it?”
“Can you answer that?” Taylor asked her.
She said nothing, her expression like tea leaves at the bottom of a cup.
“I’m afraid, Tom,” he said, “there’s not much of an alternative when one person wants out. I know it’s unfair, but it’s true.”
I couldn’t speak anymore. I was dumbfounded. Both of them were telling me it was over, and I either believe it or... There was no alternative.
I said I wanted to leave and think about things. My wife concurred; she left to pick up the boys from school. Taylor hadn’t moved by the time I went out.
In the practice room, I couldn’t write a line of music; I don’t know why I tried. So I spent the day in the library stacks, reading poetry, finding W.D. Snodgrass’s “Heart’s Needle,” an elegiac poem to his young daughter after his marriage ended. My hand covered my mouth, barely able to intone the lines, “Three months now we have been apart / less than a mile. I cannot fight / or let you go.” That night I slept in our new old van, which my wife had just purchased, along a street that bordered the campus. The next day, a Sunday, I drove back to Encinitas.
There were Jeremy and Blake on the front porch, playing Legos. We spoke briefly, then I went in. I called out her name. In the kitchen, she stood over a pie crust, hands greasy with dough. She immediately stated that I wasn't welcome in her home. But I live here too. No, this is my house, she said, and the boys', and I'm afraid you’ve forgotten what we decided with Taylor. Yes, tell me, I've forgotten. “It’s over,” she yelled. “Get out!” gripping a knife that lay beside the pie tin.
“You're out of your mind,” I yelled back
“You don't know how much I despise you, do you?”
“All right, then, I despise you. Why don't you get out.”
“Oh, no, this is my house,” she screamed, then flung the knife in the sink, “just like it was in Santa Fe.”
“But I’m paying half the rent here!”
“Not anymore you don’t. You want to know the truth? I said to Taylor that I wanted to divorce you every day for the last two years, but, you know what, it took coming to California to get rid of you.”
Suddenly Jeremy and Blake ran by us into their rooms, crying hysterically.
“Look what you're doing to them!” I shouted.
“They know, Tom, they know what I feel. Get out! Get out!”
I could hear them whimpering in their room. I went to the porch, paced, shook, my gut a nest of wasps.
I went in again, holding my palms up defensively. I pled for a separation, to which she flung a plate that shattered at my feet, slammed drawers and cupboard doors, told me again to get out. I waited on the porch, pacing again, and then began walking. What else? Beside me rushed the winter afternoon, skaters and bikers, and I went south, one, two, three miles, until I was walking onto the beach, in a town called Cardiff, past boulder piles as large as houses. Then I was on the hard sand of a withdrawing tide, and I turned around, the ocean on my left, walking into the fog and the evening, again for miles, past Stone Steps to Leucadia, then farther north, eventually to high tide. That year violent Pacific squalls had, in spots, raked the beach sand away, exposing small sea-polished stones underneath. As the waves washed ashore, the rush of water back down the rocky incline made a noisy sucking sound, a plaintive drone that I heard not as release but as relentless inbreathing. Each whoosh was a desolate reminder that I had to leave my kids with her in order to spare them their parents' hate. Where could I take them? I had nothing.
Walking back to Encinitas along Highway 101, again nearing the house, I started weeping uncontrollably, pounding on fences, No, No, No! I feared more than anything—I will always fear it, like an open casket — having to go into my sons' room and say good-bye to them. But when I snuck in through the unlocked back door, they were asleep. So I slept on the floor, hunched up and quivering as they, three days old, once slept in a twin bassinet beside me. Now I listened to their perfect breathing rhythms, imagined their freedom from their parents' turmoil, but could not imagine their absence from me. I felt I was sacrificing myself in a paroxysm of love and duty, what I thought was a father's responsibility. My father, the most responsible man I'd ever known, would have done as much for me! Like a mantra, I repeated, you boys don't deserve this: I will go, I will go.
Years later Jeremy told me that he remembers that day and night, the broken plate, the screams, he and his brother rushing by us to their beds. He says after I left he crept into the kitchen and tried to put the plate back together. Telling me this saddens him. He doesn't recall my sleeping on the floor that night. But he remembers waiting for me on Monday after he came home from school. And I didn’t show.
The next morning, driving them to school, I held myself steady, watched their harried bodies run onto the playground. Instead of vanishing inside my despair, I drove immediately to call my mother.
I told her because we couldn’t stop fighting, we were separating. It was a varnished truth. Yes, I would see Blake and Jeremy every weekend, but I had nothing, only a vehicle and some clothes. I asked for $500.
“Of course, Tom,” she said. “I "won’t let anyone ruin your life.” Her loyalty I never knew would be so firm, sound so good.
I got on I-5. None of the speeding cars or stationary oleander could I see, only the speedometer needle pushing 40. Drive, I said. South, to the border, and come back. Mother’s words echoed in my mind. She said I was strong, that she and Dad had raised sons to survive such trauma. Besides, my wife’s hatred of me was not my fault, it was hers. Yes, I thought, when I was a boy, the distress my family suffered because of my older brother’s craziness was not my fault either. But this was different: My dad was able to keep the family he had fathered together. I would not. And yet suddenly it didn’t matter. All that mattered was making contact with my sons. They needed me, needed reassurance from an absent father during the week, whose phone voice would now become him, his face, his cheek, his good-night kiss.
Mary Morris’s memoir Angels & Aliens: A Journey West (1999) tells the tale of one year, in the late 1980s, when, as a new mother, Morris moves from Manhattan to teach fiction writing at UC Irvine. During the year, she cares for Kate, her one-year-old daughter, and is separated from her lover, Jeremy, Kate’s father. An internationally famous peace-activist lawyer who travels constantly, Jeremy takes no responsibility (including no monetary support) for the child — he claims it was Morris’s decision to have the baby against his wish for an abortion — while she, inexplicably, still hopes to marry him. Mary and Jeremy had planned to be together at UC Irvine. He was offered a distinguished professorship and, as part of the deal, she would be given work as well. In the end he turns the position down. Because she has no other prospect, she flies west with Kate: Settling in Laguna Beach, she can barely afford the necessities, though she arrives buoyant to start over.
[This] is what I want...[a] place where everything is different from what has been. Where I can forget what needs to be forgotten and begin again. Yet as the plane circles to land, suddenly I am not so certain. My mother’s words from decades ago come back to haunt me. “You take yourself with you,” she said in 1967 as she put me aboard the SS France. And, of course, she was right.
Morris gets off to a good start. She “stretches before breakfast,” eats “grainy foods, lots of fiber. If I’m in California, I may as well do the California thing.” But quickly disorder intrudes upon her imagined stability: brushfires, mud slides, El Nino, traffic gridlock, the unavailability of neighbors, the expense, the buy-a-friend mentality of support groups. For a person like Morris, from Chicago, a Harvard graduate, a novelist and a travel writer (her excellent Nothing to Declare reveals a woman writer undaunted by adventures traveling alone in Mexico), you wonder where her savvy has fled. It may be that with a careless love and a young child she’s been too easily deluded by “the California thing.” Will she choose (and this is a woman who can) to be a self-sufficient single parent and accept an uncommitted relationship with Jeremy, 20 years her senior and a Royal User? Or will she slumber more deeply?
And then, mirabile visu, Morris gloms onto the New Age—not hard-core cults, but crystal healers, UFO channelers, massagers who place stones in the hands of their patients to “move the energy around.” Morris is even seduced (spiritually speaking) by the Rev. Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral and his Hour of Power ministry in Garden Grove. In a memorable Christmas-pageant scene, she watches six lithe women who as angels sail above and across the cathedral’s huge hall (which seats 2890 people) in amazing cabled apparatuses. Posing as a reporter, Morris herself gets the chance to fly. “My wings beat, my heart pounds as I glide back and forth above the nave, now it seems without wire but screaming still, eighty feet in the air.... I soar and dive, catch the wind, my wings flapping, hands flowing. I dip and climb, hurtling through the cathedral. . .as close as I’ve ever come to God.”
Morris clearly grasps the turbulent nature of California’s history: “Everything in California comes from somewhere else. The plants, the animals, the people, even the snails.” She’s right to say, “Only the climate is indigenous, and it is the climate that accounts for everything else: the hot, dry weather at the edge of a roiling sea.” She’s right again when she intones that “the Idea of the West is nothing new. It was carried from Europe across the Atlantic, and then across the whole continent. The movement went by many names — Manifest Destiny, California Dreaming — but it boiled down to a belief that natural right had precedence over birth rights, that man must rule his environment, impose his will upon nature and the land and transform it into wealth.” She cites Los Angeles, reared on water diverted from the Owens Valley, as “perhaps more than any other American city one that invented itself.”
Yes, yes. She’s assembling the Golden State.
And yet, soon after, it’s back to the channeler, Wanda, who, in the voice of Ashtar, an “intergalactic commando” extraterrestrial currently circling the earth with a “fleet of starships,” tells Morris that she is a very special “light being” whose “head is filled with shoulds and should-nots” and is “listening to everyone but yourself.” Ashtar’s “advice” is particularly juicy in the days just before the May 10, 1988, “end of the world” for which the “light workers” (Morris included) must ready their energies in order to be spirited away and escape earth’s demise. Shades of Heaven’s Gate! Through it all, Ashtar recites, in a high squeaky robotic voice, such profoundly obvious things that one has to ask how anyone finds this helpful: “You do not know how free you are. You do not know what you are capable of. You have not begun to tap into your potential.” Morris, at times moved, at times laughing out loud, keeps seeking the E.T.’s guidance, usually commenting, “I wish Ashtar could understand what I am feeling.”
Throughout Angels & Aliens, I wondered why Morris fails to see the New Agers’ apocalyptically manipulative and ridiculously overstated wishes. For that matter, why does she fail to see Jeremy’s intentions: Even after refusing to send her a measly $50 a month, she still wants to be with him. Like an Edith Piaf song, love and the lost self become so intensified in Morris’s consciousness that she actually believes some spiritual intercession will save her. But it doesn’t matter what she believes. Beliefliberates, and, lest we forget, liberation is the reason for being here. Though I still feel some irresolution with the ending, she has dumped Jeremy for good, and the spell that she brought with her has loosened and fallen away.
There will be no easy answers, no simple solutions. But perhaps in the end there are miracles. All my time with channelers and New Age practitioners has led me to believe I can reinvent myself; I can begin again yet one more time.
In the end I know what I’ve come to believe in. It’s another California cliche, but I’ve come to believe in myself
Such transformations are as common as sunbeams. For those seeking radical individual change, California is a place of practical miracles. Part of me resists this, for it makes a religion of place — rent a condo in Laguna Beach and your guru will appear. When a region becomes a tabernacle, we know what to expect: The crutches, canes, and walkers are left behind, lofted on pegs for the next busload of afflicted souls to worship. At the sight of which even wackier redeemers go public and jokes about La-La Land abound. Sadly, our locale becomes marked by the conversion of a few. But then, as Waldie reminds me, if I dispute this end, I lack the very abstraction that is essential to Southern Califomians, identity. That identity is abstract; unlike a sewer system or a shopping mall, you indeed have the power to become any number of “you”s. What each person eventually finds by migrating to California can be whatever that person says she’s found, especially, as Morris shows, after losing the initial idea of what it was she thought she’d find when she got here.
Two weeks passed and I returned to Taylor. He was unchanged, like a bank teller or an uncle whose tics we’ve memorized. And yet, something about him was more than familiar, beyond the weeks spent counseling us. His big body packed itself into that padded swivel chair; he looked as though he had a family, maybe children, which he cared for and missed; and I still expected him to itch the chafe on his cheeks. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m feeling — I hate to say this — very different. A lot lighter.”
“You do know why.”
“The fighting has stopped. We don’t argue anymore.”
“And that’s good, right?”
“I would not have told you this earlier,” Taylor said, “but it’s often a counselor’s job to help end the marriage, especially as it was, in your case, past saving. We think nowadays, in this Reaganized vision of family happiness, that it’s our job to make marriages succeed no matter what. Like our parents’. I don’t buy that. Nothing is served that remains painfully the same. Besides, good dads don’t have to stay married.” This last bit was a beam of light. Had he only said that earlier — because being a good dad, and not staying married to her, was what I wanted. I just didn’t know I wanted it.
“You know,” I said, smiling, “it did take coming here, to San Diego and this room, for me to realize how tired I was of arguing with her, having no physical love, tired of my debts being tallied, and her thinking of me not as an artist but as a provider. It was okay for her to be an artist since she made lots of money at it. But unless I made money, in her eyes I was nobody.” I thought a moment. “I’m also beginning to see how much I helped to perpetuate it.”
“You got some of that perpetuating it from your parents, didn’t you?” Taylor asked.
I said I had, especially from my dad.
“You wouldn’t have known any other way but theirs, correct?”
“My dad was the provider who let me become the artist. In order to pay homage to that, I guess I believed I had to be like him. Married.”
Just then I noticed the similarity. Taylor was the same size, had the same directness, the same bristly cheeks, was roughly the same age my dad would have been when, on the road a lot and feeling shamed by his absence, he made it up to me with those long sessions at my bedside. Taylor was that nearperfect parent whom I thought I had lost.
One last thing. “Jeremy and Blake will not,” he said, “take you to task for what has happened. And don’t be surprised if they blame themselves.” He then asked, “Do you have a place yet?”
No, I was sleeping in my van in Del Mar, leaving every morning at six before the people in the neighborhood left for work. Homelessness was fine for now; the school had showers; the boys and I camped on weekends. “I quit smoking and started running,” I said. “Hey, good for you,” he replied. We shook hands. And that was it. I wanted to see Taylor again, but I never did.
Looking for a cheap room I answered an ad at a flat-roofed house in Pacific Beach. An old man, balding and dumpy, let me in; his kitchen smelled of fried chicken and Marlboros. He showed me a room with a huge bed filling the space; a tiny desk sat in the comer, and, like biospheric aliens, philodendron leaves pressed against the window. When I said I had my kids on the weekends, he said that’s all right, you can play with them outside. In his living room I spied family photos on the mantel, thick sideburns and long hair, circa 1973. Who are they, I asked. “My family,” he said, “before my marriage broke up.” The regret in his voice stung.
I left in a hurry, avoiding the infection of his sorrow. A week later, my name came up for an apartment at Mesa Apartments, the university’s graduate-student housing. It was July and now Blake and Jeremy had two places to be. I picked them up Friday evening for our new home and took them back Sunday evening to their mother’s. I hated their Encinitas house because its bunk beds, toy chest, Boogie boards, its clothes and pictures and boy smells, its proximity to their friends and school — all negated my place. But I might duplicate some of what they had, so I started collecting. At my two-bedroom apartment (with a roommate who liked children), Blake and Jeremy slept on a ratty fold-out couch in the living room. In the main closet I put a bookcase, a giant toy box, and a little dresser with separate drawers for their backpacks of underwear and shorts, toothbrush and Walkmen. Few toys traveled back and forth; instead I took hand-me-downs from my ex or else charged up the Visa. My walls soon were covered with their sketches. Many said, “I love Tom,” showing houses and palm trees. (They called me Tom, then; later we changed it back to Dad.) The word “love” and a house were always joined.
We spent hours in a park on the grounds—a huge sandbox play area with adjacent tree-house trees — where they met other kids. At night I read library books, chapters they recalled well from week to week. I didn’t date, hire a sitter, have friends over—no interferences allowed. I might stay inside and read, especially if Blake and Jeremy had friends to play with. But I furtively watched for them out the window or ambled outside at 30-minute intervals. The pattern of their lives grew stable, and that December Blake told my mother on the phone, “We’re lucky, Grandma. We get to be at our dad’s house and our mom’s for Christmas. We get to decorate two trees and get two piles of presents. Want to talk with my brother?”
A last transformation was also completed that December. I switched my degree path from the Department of Music to the Department of Literature. Why? Within two months of the divorce, having lost the conceit that California might save a marriage, the passion to play and compose music vanished. No piano or guitar tones, no made-up melody came from my fingers again. Perhaps it was psychosomatic — a diseased marriage infected the music, then wasted the musician. Or the other way around. Or some other circumlocution I haven’t untangled yet What is apparent, though, is that the deepest losses cannot be understood. They can only be lost.
When I thought to contrast my story with those of other authors, I believed there’d be a surfeit of memoirs about growing up or coming here, an abundance, like the land and the sun, spilling forth from a century and a half of written history. I thought I’d find tales of other ethnic groups too, who regarded California not as a westering destination but El Norte (for the Mexicans) or the East (for Asians). I thought I’d at least uncover a fine new autobiography to rival a journeyman history like Carey McWilliams’s Southern California: An Island on the Land or a grand novel like John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. But I found no recent stories centered in San Diego and very few from the immediate north. Why?
Something about the image, the magnetism, the enigma, the hugeness of Southern California overwhelms the writer. It’s too much — to behold, let alone be. An author is overrun by its imaginative excesses until, repeatedly plunged into paradox, he wakes up as enlightened as he is humbled. Indeed, paradox is the common denominator. David Beers has understood how a community built on developing weapons could also provide him the moral sensibility to oppose them. Joan Didion has matched the ambiguities in herself to those in her locale and often replicates in her work the penumbral complexities of Los Angeles she is so attracted to. D J. Waldie, still aching for his father’s love, may or may not see how trapped he is by the ideology he has so brilliantly embodied in his book. And Mary Morris, because she puts her faith in intergalactic communication, learns ultimately to put her faith in herself. Such is Southern California rapture.
For the man who came here in 1982 expecting some of that rapture, I have to give it to the imp of the Southland. That little devil goaded my ex-wife and me to end what had to but couldn’t end in New Mexico. The marriage was loveless. Anywhere else, she, like me, might pretend indefinitely that it wasn’t. Anywhere but here.
Surely living a lie here was possible. But living a lie brought from elsewhere was not possible. That was the touchstone. San Diego was cathartic It jolted me awake. Though briefly dimmed, the white, the rose, the purple oleander blossoms burst on again, and I was ecstatic. How seamless it all was! And, knowing I’d been freed by geography, I figured there had to be a few other writers who shared broken expectations and unforeseen fulfillment, who were, like me, working to make of this coastal corner a literature.
Until I read “Writing San Diego: The Invisible City,” an essay by University of San Diego English professor Bart Thurber. Written for a Carlsbad Library publication in 1993, Thurber goes searching for San Diego’s literary heritage, in fiction and nonfiction, and comes up empty. He cites Richard Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, from an 1835 visit, in which Dana describes his day spent on the beach reading a joke book and reporting on little of San Diego’s natural beauty. Thurber says Dana was here so as not to be somewhere else. He cites Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, a fantasy of the Spanish past set in Southern California, once part of northern Mexico. Jackson’s vision of the natives and the Spanish, he calls romantic fluff. He cites a letter of Henry James’s, who details the lovely climate, then adds, “There is absolutely nothing else, and the sense of the shining social and human inane is utter.” James left in a hurry. If he was suggesting that the “inane” was “shining,” then things cultural here must have been awful. With such “non”-examples from the 19th Century, Thurber contends that San Diego began as a “place that was not a place, quite, inhabited by legends that were not legends, quite, where imaginations could work relatively untroubled by indigestible fact—facts that were not facts, quite, given a developing cultural aesthetic that had never needlessly bothered with veracity. It was a city, a region, a culture of the possible, not the established.”
Thurber next lists 20th-century authors who have resided here — Frank Baum, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Scott O’Dell, Ben Hecht, Raymond Chandler, Erie Stanley Gardner, Terry Cole-Whittaker, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Sherley Anne Williams, most of whom, he notes, have produced fantasy, children’s literature, or self-help books. And yet, despite their works, none have “turn[ed] their attention in any detail to San Diego itself.” He declares: “San Diego remains and will continue to remain an especially mute, an invisible, region and culture, quietly dreaming itself to itself, psychically as well as physically remote from the clash and turmoil of ideas elsewhere. It is not necessarily unappealing; many of us are here...in order to avoid the turmoil of ideas elsewhere. San Diego is invisible because we have wanted it to be invisible.”
In literature, I thought San Diego was Southern California, resonating to the truths and contradictions of all those who moved to or grew up south of Ventura. Apparently not. What happened? I e-mailed Thurber at once.
He greets me the next day at his USD office where he’s been teaching composition, theory, and Victorian writers for 21 years. He’s just returned from a sabbatical A writing teacher also (I knew Thurber in the 1980s when I taught part-time at USD), I tell him I’ve lost the fire for instructing: this generation of students is uninspiring, uninspired, and, worst of all, nonreaders. “They’re a-literate,” I complain. “They can read but don’t. You and I grew up when reading was a passion, something we did constantly, despite being young.” Thurber agrees but says he’s less jaded. He’s eager to get back. Besides, his students, he says, have to read if they’re going to pass.
On our way to lunch, in his one-day-old Hyundai, I ask what brought him here (waiting before I discuss my angle). A native, growing up in Bakersfield and receiving a B.A. at Stanford, Thurber sorely missed the West Coast while earning a Ph.D. at Harvard. “In rural New England,” he says, “there are these country lanes with trees on both sides. And the trees aren’t real high. What that means [is] the visual field you see are walls of green. My visual geometry was all screwed up because look what you see out the window here.” From our brick-and-glass-enclosed patio at the Tecolote Cafe we see a golf course, Friars Road, a big blue sky. Thurber says he missed the relationship between trees and sky: “That’s why,” he told himself, “I’ve got to get back to California, to exist in space—without knowing it—the way I had known it, especially in Bakersfield.”
Arriving in San Diego, Thurber recalls a “tremendous sense of excitement. I had a job, after all.” In Boston, he had consulted a road atlas and noted all the pink squares indicating Indian reservations, the highest concentration in the country. “I was astonished by that. That was a real mystery. That didn’t fit my mental picture.” He says his wife, who’s from Oregon, had visited San Diego once and recalled “the absolute extravagant aromas of the flowers, the tropical ones.”
Was it confirmed?
“It’s been a continual surprise, a visual surprise.” Upon arrival he remembers driving down Sunset Boulevard in Mission Hills and seeing the giant palm trees, for the first time. “They looked like tufts of pubic hair on top of toothpicks.” Living in North Park, he gawked at a neighbor’s banana tree. He says there’s no way to predict what he encountered. His experience has taught him that most newcomers don’t think about what San Diego might be. They come for the job. When they arrive, everything changes.
Thurber’s thoughtfulness belies his quiet voice and humility. “I’m talking too much,” he says often and, when I assure him he’s not, he spins out further, at home in the wind. He’s a breathless talker, the sort who can’t wait for a lunch table to make a point. Going down a stairwell, he bends halfway around so he can keep an idea going that he’s developing.
I make the inevitable comparison between L.A. and San Diego, then describe some of the memoirs and essay collections I’ve been reading. Their theres, most located in or near Los Angeles, seem indistinguishable from here, I say. Thurber disagrees.
San Diegans, he says, “don’t want to get Los Angelized. But on the flip side we want to be a metropolis that is taken as seriously as Los Angeles. L.A. is a well-mythologized and a re-mythologized place. [It’s] been voicing itself for a long time.”
Aren’t we a bit L.A.?
Thurber says that begs the question. Just because San Diego’s layout and mentality is like L.A. doesn’t mean much for him. He says in his reading he’s come upon no local voices who even “claim we’re like those” communities in “West L.A. or Lakewood or Santa Monica. There’s something about Los Angeles that calls upon its people to articulate” its identity — the noir of nocturnal L.A., for example. A similar mythological depth, unique to San Diego, is missing.
Thurber says this may be so because San Diego is still very young: “I know it’s the oldest city in California. But it’s only 40 or 50 years old. The real comparison is not with New York or Los Angeles or Chicago now. It’s with New York in 1710, it’s with Chicago in 1810, San Francisco in 1880.” There are, he says, multiple reasons why people come here. Native Americans came for hunting and fishing; the Spanish for the conquest. These groups he calls the first “invisible” peoples because “their story” in San Diego “is also not told.” The first reason Anglos came was “for health...especially for consumptives.”
San Diego, naturally, has attracted those whom Thurber calls “charlatans and hucksters and shysters,” who ended up here because they’d tried and were thrown out of other places. One form of the settler mentality is those on the lam from responsibility, the law, or internal problems, who find a home in this end-corner of America. They come to feel good in the sun. “It’s no accident that San Diego is the meth capital of the United States,” he says. If you come here to be happy and you find that “maybe you’re not so happy,” then methamphetamines might be the answer.
An endless parade of people come here to tell us who we want to or who we should be. Thurber cites C. Arnholt Smith and J. David Dominelli. “Tell me a story, J. David Dominelli,” a story that will “speak the story of ourselves to ourselves.” He says it begins with Alonzo Horton, who comes and says, “ ‘Here we’ll have a city from nothing, a city that will rise out of the salt flats.’ And it did — that’s what’s so ironic.” I ask whether this is the problem some have with Padres’ owner John Moores, a rich carpetbagger who buys a team and then cleverly orchestrates its future toward a new ballpark, which will make him more money.
It doesn’t surprise Thurber one bit. “We’re always bringing these people in to tell us who we are. To answer yes when we ask, ‘Are we a world-class city?’ The inferiority complex in San Diego is overwhelming. No more so than in that slogan ‘America’s Finest City.’ ” Another proof, he adds, is the Gaslamp district. “It’s such a made-up chamber-of-commerce name. Especially when we have a perfectly good name from the past, the Stingaree. What a great name! Come on down to the Stingaree. That was San Diego’s Barbary Coast. San Francisco is proud of their Barbary Coast. What are we hiding? That there used to be hookers and tattoo parlors downtown?”
People come to San Diego, Thurber says, “not for what is here but for what isn’t. And what isn’t is [their] past, the failures they’ve had, the successes they’ve had. Anything. People come to San Diego in order to be placeless and voiceless. Because that is the ultimate freedom. It’s the whole idea of America: Come here and make of yourself what you will. It’s a city of tabula rasas, deliberately chosen. But what’s interesting is that it doesn’t work. Nobody’s really a tabula rasa. You can’t really not bring something with you to a new place.”
Thurber advises I read Kevin Starr’s book, The Dream Endures, in which the state librarian writes one chapter about San Diego while giving San Francisco and Los Angeles widespread coverage. Back on the subject of writers, Thurber wishes San Diego had a great newspaperman. “We don’t have a Jimmy Breslin,” he says. “We don’t have a Mike Royko. We, don’t have a Scottie Reston. We don’t have Dickens, a great urban storyteller. [But] I would be dismayed if we had a Voice’ of San Diego. It’s not that kind of place. It has to be the Voices’ of San Diego. But where are they?”
Though there are as many writers per square acre here as anywhere else, he says none are writing about San Diego. His conclusion? Writers don’t want to write about this place. “They come here because it’s a good place to work. The weather’s not a factor. Writers here are like people in San Diego. They come for that swan dive into possibility. It’s the very invisibility of the place that draws them. Not to tease out the reasons for that invisibility but to surround themselves with it To get work done.” Again he mentions such juvenile and fantasy writers in San Diego as Dr. Seuss or Frank Baum. “Those are the two most placeless kinds of writers. It’s your business to imagine places not where you are.”
He says for every newcomer, the idea has always been to “get on your horse, ride into the sunset, and stay in the sunset.” If there were a writer who could tell this story, Thurber thinks he or she would have to be “an amazing person. You’d have to be both in that endless sunset and be away from it far enough to voice it. That’s not easy.”
Out in the parking lot, we get back in his Hyundai, smoke-gray plastic dashboard and that new-car vinyl smell. He starts the car and it purrs. “One of my students,” he says, “told me one day that he knew I was from Southern California by my accent. ‘Oh, really,’ I said. ‘I didn’t realize I had an accent.’ ‘Yeah,’ the kid said. ‘You sound like one of the Beach Boys.’ ” Yet another flesh-and-blood San Diegan referenced elsewhere.
For months I ruminate on Thurber’s incisive and unsettling ideas. Because of him I’m willing to try one last throw of the lariat, then call it quits. There aren’t any San Diego memoirs, native or new-arrival, because you cannot tell how the place has changed your life when the place is invisible. You cannot tell your story when an invisible place wipes you clean, insists you begin anew. You cannot tell your story when there’s no tradition of others telling their stories and therefore making their invisibility visible. You have no shoulders to stand on because you are still swan-diving into possibility.
Except, there is my story. My ex and I had to shed our past quickly so we’d become tabula rasas, or new invisibles. Just like those houses and retirees who rim the Salton Sea and materialize (go look for yourself) only for us natives. The channel, of course, was those two inches of nighttime space that we maintained in bed all those years ago. Once that space widened, she, then I, squeezed in, right where the sign read “San Diego.”