Archive for the ‘Joan Didion’ Category

Some Thoughts on Where I Was From

November 18, 2010

Some Thoughts on Where I Was From

In the introduction to his book Many Mexicos, historian Lesley Byrd Simpson explains how its jagged mountain ranges carve the nation up into several distinct geographical and cultural regions. It dawns on me that Many Californias would be an apt title for the book Where I Was From, a collection of Joan Didion’s writings about her native state.

Not much about California, on its own preferred terms, has encouraged its children to see themselves as connected to one another. The separation, of north from south—and even more acutely west from east, of the urban coast from the agricultural valleys and of both the coast and the valleys from the mountain and desert regions to their east—was profound, fueled by the rancor of water wars and by less tangible but even more rancorous differences in attitude and culture (64).

Our Many Californias often seem to be working at cross purposes from one another, much like our notoriously undisciplined congressional delegation. (State-boostering legislative discipline is the only thing we envy about Texas.)

So the much-hyped rivalry between the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California (a label which, oddly, doesn’t seem to include the San Diego area) is merely one of many divides. Rivalry, however, isn’t really the correct word because that would imply that people in Southern California are actively conscious of what others are thinking about us. Yes, the smug sense of superiority that Bay Area residents feel over their glittery and shallow water-thieving “neighbors” to the south is a cornerstone of regional identity, but Southern Californians don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the haters. This is fortunate because we are roundly detested (BEAT LA). In San Diego, for example, TV weathermen give the “Smell A” forecast.

In 1890 my grandfather was born in Upland, which makes my California lineage much longer than that of most of my fellow inhabitants. But my ancestors came by railroad; Joan Didion’s people came by covered wagon. Ms. Didion insists that this distinction created a clan of hearty settlers who don’t look kindly upon those who fuss and dawdle:

Sentiment, like grief and dissent, cost time. A hesitation, a moment spent looking back, and the grail was forfeited. Independence Rock, west of Fort Laramie on the Sweetwater River, was so named because the traveler who had not reached that point by the Fourth of July, Independence Day, would not reach the Sierra Nevada before snow closed the passes (32-33).

The details of the Crossing are deeply ingrained in family lore because “The gravity of the decisive break demands narrative” (30).

The importance of recording these memories was unquestioned: the flood and the levees and the two-story house on the Grape Vine Ranch had become, like the potato masher that crossed the plains, like the books that did not get jettisoned on the Umpqua River, evidence of family endurance, proof of our worth, indistinguishable from the crossing story itself (158).

Of course, many Californians were ambivalent about the massive influx of citizens which transformed our state into the nation’s largest and most prosperous in the nation. In particular, California’s tradition-conscious older families who are often large landholders, “have an equivocal and often uneasy relationship to the postwar expansion (97).” More people might bring wealth and increase real estate “value”, but they will never get what it really means to be a Californian.

“New people, we were given to understand, remained ignorant of our special history, insensible to the hardships endured to make it, blind not only to the dangers the place still presented but to the shared responsibility its continued habitation demanded” (95).

And Californians have been happy to share the cost of much of our growth with the rest of the country by way of federal railroad subsidies, massive hydro-agricultural projects and military/aerospace spending. For decades we blissfully accepted federal largess despite the obvious contradiction that such an “extreme reliance of California on federal money [was] so seemingly at odds with the emphasis on unfettered individualism that constitutes the local core belief” (23).

For example:

The cost of controlling or rearranging the Sacramento [River], which is to say the “reclamation” of the Sacramento Valley, was largely born, like the cost of controlling or rearranging many other inconvenient features of California life, by the federal government (23).


It was a quartet of Sacramento shopkeepers, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford and Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins, who built the railroad that linked California with the world markets and opened the state to extensive settlement, but it was the citizens of the rest of the country who paid for it through a federal cash subsidy (24-25).

During the remarkable postwar boom, California grew and grew. We built cities, freeways, airports and the greatest system of higher education in the world. It was perfectly natural to assume that “[g]ood times today and better times tomorrow were supposed to come with the territory” (129).

Then came the Oil Shock, Governor Moonbeam, Proposition 13, an era of limits, the end of the Cold War, the loss of “800,000 jobs between 1988 and 1993”, the Rodney King Riots, OJ, and thriving auto and aerospace factories replaced by warehouses offering “165,000 Square Feet of T-Shirts Madness”
(134, 151).

A scared and frustrated public reacted angrily to the demise of our “artificial ownership class” (113). However,

“when they finally noticed that the jobs had gone to Salt Lake or St. Louis, [they tended] to see their problem as one caused by ‘the media’ or by ‘condoms in the schools’ or by less-good citizens, or by non-citizens” (116).

As Californians began to turn on ourselves, bizarre, fear-driven policies led to this:

“It was 1995 when, for the first time, California spent more on its prisons than on its two university systems, the ten Campuses of the University of California and the twenty-four campuses of California State University” (187).

When Joan Didion was a child, she asked her mother to which class the family belonged, only to be rebuffed that “class” was “not a word we use.”

We believed in fresh starts. We believed in good luck. We believed in the miner who scratched together one last stake and struck the Comstock Lode. We believed in the wildcatter who leased arid land at two and a half cents an acre and bought in Kettleman Hills, fourteen million barrels of crude in its first three years. We believed in all the ways that apparently played-out possibilities could while we slept turn green and golden (128).

California could sure use a green and golden fresh start these days.

by Richard W. Bray