MY CALIFORNIA was a book meant for the Dutch market and assigned by my publisher at the time but the series this manuscript would be part of was discontinued due to the crisis in the publishing world.
The manuscript has been sitting on my computer since, but now that I am blogging, I have decided to serialize this book for free on my blog. Like it, share it, recommend it. Let the free market do its magic!
My California, an ABC
There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.
~ Edward Abbey
In California, they don’t throw their garbage away – they make it into TV shows.
~ Woody Allen
California, Land of Dreams
Americans have often described California as the land of fruits and nuts, which is not only a reference to the many fruits and nuts the state produces, but is also a critique of the number of crazies the state attracts. This prejudice is influenced by the openness and maybe the naïveté to believe in new and exceptional ideas, dreams and illusions. That an Austrian body builder can become a Republican governor while being married to a Kennedy (and then throw it all away by fathering a child with his housekeeper) seems like a Hollywood movie script in the making but here’s the kicker: this stuff just happens in California and very few people raise an eye brow…
The Californian tendency to live large and dream big has manifested itself in the brilliant products which were born in the garages of Silicon Valley: it gave us Apple and Hewlett-Packard. Google came more or less out of Stanford and Facebook may have come out of Harvard but essentially established itself as a California brand. Scientific ideas and breakthroughs were “subsidized” by universities and this resulted in numerous Nobel Prizes: on the Berkeley Campus where parking spaces are expensive and hard to come by, you get a parking pass for life if you’re a Nobelist.
California ideas tested the boundaries of social legislation: the gay marriage ballot is a continuing election theme and weed for medicinal purposes has now officially been legalized.
And yes, then there are some dreams which turned out to be deceptions and were not rewarded with VC capital or liquidated themselves during the era of the “dot bomb.”
Aside from the current recession, which the country seems to be climbing out of now, the dotcom bust was the last big economic crisis in which one in three California families lost jobs. The rest of the country had been somewhat indifferent to the internet boom and bust: hadn’t people in California always played with fire by building bungalow homes on the fault lines of devastating earthquakes and inside the canyons of combustible eucalyptus trees? Wasn’t their self-confidence as preposterous as the hollow magic of Hollywood?
My husband and two children moved to California on the eve of the dotcom bust and 9/11. With California Dreamin’ of the Mammas and the Pappas in my ears, I soon awakened from the American Dream. I described this in a book (which was published in the Netherlands, the country where I was born and raised) when my husband also lost his job in a recession that would last three years for us personally. After months of using up our savings, inferior jobs, mac & cheese meals and second-hand clothes the abyss widened in front of us: we contemplated dropping our expensive health insurance in order to afford our mortgage payments. Growing up in the Netherlands where every citizen can and may stumble to be caught by a soft safety net of social welfare checks, I was shocked to see how fast Americans can lose it all.
But despite our sobering awakening, our situation also triggered flexibility and an inventiveness that are part of the California spirit. What does not kill you makes you stronger, Kelly Clarkson sings, and my husband and I kept believing in the future in spite of the economic malaise and somber prognosis. “Our character,” the American author Helen H. Jackson Brown wrote: “is what we do when we think no one is looking.”
In a strange way, this was the ultimate test of what it meant to be a Californian and at the moment that our need was most palpable, we both found a job. We had been pulled away from the abyss, and such a happy ending felt just as unreal as the Hollywood movies we watched with our kids.
When, in 2009, the banks started falling like domino stones, we took a deep breath; would we be able to avoid the crisis this time because of the strong IT-sector, biotech and green companies in California? But the snowball was rolling downhill already and turned into an avalanche of pink slips along the entire West Coast.
And thus it happened that on Sunday the churches were filling up again and the shopping malls were empty.
And the state? The state was bankrupt.
The immediate future looked grim, and if California had been a country in Europe, we might have been inclined to give into cynicism and defeatism. But that does not suit the California temperament. Just like the Dutch who are used to the call and threat of rising sea levels and storms, Californians have been wired by the threat of earthquakes and summer fires. Circumstances have made them creative, and therefore they are not afraid to dream big and take risks…the dreams, for example, of IT, biotech and green companies; once they belonged to the fringe, but now they may well be the companies that pull us out of the recession.
And no matter how long the lines are in the soup kitchens, Californians will always be inspired by Hollywood’s myths and fables. Maybe the sun is going under near the Golden Gate, but every generation of Californians has found gold anew and pushed it to the next dimension. And this, this California Dream, is much more compelling than the American Dream.
Or maybe I should rephrase this, for dreams are not the real thing and the majority of people who moved to California, may have seen their dreams dashed. Yet it is the mythological reputation and dynamism of the state itself that still attracts so many people from elsewhere: they are outsiders who become insiders, provided they also believe in California, the idea. California, after all, is so much more than a place on the map. It incorporates a state of mind, which one can find nowhere else in the country, and maybe nowhere else in the world.
And California is the locus of “overall oblivion” because whereas America and the East Coast, in particular, have never been able to shake its European roots and hinterland, the umbilical cord with Europe was cut once and for all when the first migrants crossed the arid deserts and snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevadas to reach America’s Left Coast.
This dynamic power without all the onerous baggage from the Old World, but also the fact that California has long been the powerhouse of the American economy, endows the state with a feeling of autonomy and confidence. Don’t we have it all in this state? Or as Deanna Durban and Robert Paige sang in the film Can’t Help Singing (1944):
The climate is better
The ocean is wetter
The mountains are higher
The deserts are drier
The hills have more splendor
The girls have more gender
The state even outperforms the European country that considers itself the uncrowned king of civilizations (France): we have mountains, sea, lakes, deserts, wine, olives, yoga, sun, beauty, movies, wealth, industry, technology, science, innovation, talent and the tolerance to be a multicultural melting pot.
While states like Iowa and Ohio are always described as bellwether states in elections for the US Presidency, and therefore may be the ultimate barometer of the country as a whole, California is, ideologically, often diametrically opposed to those states. For that same reason, the state is often described as a “foreign country” within the US. This does not only have to do with its multicultural population (almost everyone comes from somewhere else), but also with a certain cosmopolitanism. Wasn’t California dissenting (and in synch with Germany and France) when America decided to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Abovementioned cosmopolitanism does not come from the water we drink in California, or the scent we inhale among the rosemary and redwoods. It has been a long time in the making, and been established by the ideological migrants who settled here in the twentieth century. First it was the soldiers who during the Korean war and the war in Vietnam were shipped out via California: soldiers who changed their mind about front duty, got out in California and many of them ended up in San Francisco where the gay contingent practically founded the Castro district. In essence, they were the first hippies, because by dropping out, they showed their obvious discontent with the US government and the role of its armies in the world.
Their spirit soon spread to the Beats in San Francisco (North Beach) whose followers (beatniks) became the real hippies who settled in Haight-Ashbury (or “The Haight”). However, when the summer of love changed into a winter of LSD, many escaped the city, following in Jack Kerouac’s footsteps and call to the wild, which he named the “rucksack revolution”. Rucksack rebels moved to Big Sur and Humboldt County to start weed gardens, among ferns and redwoods, becoming the so-called Lost Coast hippies. And don’t forget the protest movement of the Black Panthers (1966) and the students of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley (also in the 1960s). The protest and counter-culture in California of the 1960s gave California its “anything goes” kind of reputation, which is a far cry from what most of the rest of the country represents and has represented throughout the years.
In My California, I would like to show the reader what makes my adoptive state so unique and uniquely fascinating. While crossing the Mediterranean landscape with its cypress trees and vines, I hope to define the many sides of the California identity as an aggregate of its people, places and themes. This ABC of California, which is very much a European perspective on the state, is truly “my California” and an homage to a place whose landscapes, people, food, wine, movies, lifestyle but also slang and oddities I have grown to love and at times, love to ridicule, for true love should never be a blind love.
As an ABC, this series hopes to enlighten those who, like me, have been mesmerized by California’s history and what I consider the California “brand,” which is known all across the world. In the end, I also hope that this series adds something new and worthwhile to the knowledge of true California connoisseurs, for if there is anything that I have learned from this state it is that Californians are experts at making the old new and the new, newer.