Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Oh California...I'm Not Coming Home

In the 1970s, when I left the Bay Area to go to college, Joni Mitchell's "California" was my anthem. I was a wraith of a girl, a straight-A student. I was never a surfer, but Beach Boys songs reminded me of home, too. Back then, being from California seemed essential.

Here's Joni singing with all that youthful longing:

But my heart cried out for you California
Oh California I'm coming home...
I still love California. But I can no longer come home to it in a romantic swoon, and it's not just because the Golden State has been tarnished by economic and natural disaster. It's because I've lost the sense that any place can "take me as I am." My loss is personal and profound, and in it I recognize the calls for a return to an older dream of America.

I support the Obama administration, but this emotional recognition worries me. On Saturday, September 12, thousands will participate in the "Taxpayer March on DC." I hope White House staffers are paying due respect to the feelings under all the crazy talk. I fear they are not.

It's hair-trigger, the way so many leap from their own grief to political rage. I know my lack of security has everything to do with the fragile health of my parents. I'm outraged at the government, but letting my anger spill over to governors and presidents does me no good. Maybe it feels good for a few seconds, but then it doesn't, not at all.

If you look at websites for groups like the Tea Party Patriots, there's little content about policy. I tried to pull a quote with substance, yet all I found were references to "our Founding Fathers," "free markets," and "limited government." It's all about mobilizing, speaking up, resisting.

It's relentlessly personal. It's feeling-driven, just like a pop song, and what an irony that the language of lefty organizing—all that attitude about "Sunset pigs," in Joni's words—now does service for conservatives. Our supposedly lost country is a long way from 1971 and Laurel Canyon on her album Blue. Yet in that California dream, everyone wanted their own freedom, too. They wanted to sink into a reverie of pleasure.

No bourgeois values. No war. That was just a dream some of us had.

California has always had a libertarian strain. My dad the political-science professor understood this well, starting with the election of Ronald Reagan as governor in 1966. But I didn't get the zeitgeist shift earlier this summer, when my family happened across a "tea party" rally in Times Square. One block was suddenly packed with white skin, and there were exhortations about "not taking it anymore" from revved-up guys on megaphones.

I did feel the shift by the end of August, however, in San Diego. An old friend we visited in La Jolla says that on election night, when she ran out her door to cheer for Barack Obama the minute the polls closed, she heard only one other answering yodel blocks away.

There was far more cheering in the Bay Area and Los Angeles last November, but the aggrieved conservatism is also California. As a teenager, clutching both Blue and David Bowie's Diamond Dogs as identity totems, it was easy to sneer at Southern California. Yet its dreams of beaches and surfers and casual hook-ups most evoked what I called myself then.

We're all culpable in our desire for a metaphorical home. The longing for a golden past is easily manipulated by conservative interests, who use code words like "individual liberties" and "fighting change." But existential angst is what I'm talking about here—a complex brew that can send the strongest of us running to a cause. Progressive politicians reveal their own biases when they don't see how much the current dissent is animated by hurt.

Oh California. You symbolize more than you know.

My home is elsewhere and has been for years. But I visit the Bay Area often because my parents are both ill. My father, in particular, is slipping into the frozen darkness of Parkinson's Disease. On a good afternoon, he and I might spend ten minutes under the lemon tree in his backyard, an occasional hummingbird buzzing in the leaves. I smell my past there: the scent of the dry hills. I smell my dear father, in his baggy sweatshirt, as he talks about letting go, about having lived a good life, about his worries for my mother.

Yes, I'm scared that one season is ending as another begins. But to conflate my loss and fear with the state of the country would be to lose my soul—and these days, my soul is the thing I come home to.

Joni has lost her amazing young voice, too. But some would say she's attained something richer and more hard-won. Even by 1976 and her album Hejira, she was on the endless road again. Ron Rosenbaum's paean to her transcendent song "Amelia," about the "ghost of aviation," explores longing in a far more complicated key:
I was driving across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens
It was the strings of my guitar
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
As Rosenbaum notes of the many meanings of false alarm, "when used colloquially, [it] is more often taken to be analogous to—if not synonymous with—'false hope.'"

Joni was never a romantic swooner. In a review in NOW Magazine, Susan Cole complains of a difficult interview with her in 1994. Cole quotes Michelle Mercer, author of the biography Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period, as saying, “Joni Mitchell is not like us. She’s driven to recreate herself as an artist in ways that very few people do. She’s been through so many stages of regeneration.”

Last week in La Jolla, I took a walk to the beach by myself before heading to the airport. At the end of a cul-de-sac, among all these deceptively modest bungalows in a million-dollar neighborhood, I stepped out on a ledge between houses. There was the blue Pacific and the white sand and a watery haze in the air. I expected to feel a last "ah," a sweet snort of Southern Californian fun and sun to take back with me to the east coast.

Instead I was suffused by sadness. My eyes blurred. I watched several surfers up the beach, black crescents in their wet suits. The swells were large but orderly, and when one surfer stood, he or she descended into beautiful white froth, then paddled back out to do it again.

I kept watching them, counting seconds, daring myself to wait until they took another wave—and two did, cutting down the same swell and into the same sparkling froth—not graceful, but fully alive and present.

I thought of myself, getting up and roaring down another wave, of the need to keep getting up and splashing down into the cold froth. I thought of my father, who often needs a push to get started out of his chair just to take a few mincing, wobbly steps forward, who needs my help now to lift his legs onto the bed before descending into sleep.
Oh it gets so lonely
When you're walking
And the streets are full of strangers
All the news of home you read
More about the war
And the bloody changes
Oh will you take me as l am?
Will you take me as l am?
Will you?
Oh California. I will remember you. I watch the surfers and also feel ecstatic. The day I don't find myself yodeling down a wave is the day I die—or so I tell myself, under a misty blue sky, my body still brown and whole and able to lift me up.


  1. Hi Professor Nichols, thanks for sharing this heartfelt message. It was very evocative and sentimental. You know we have a lot in common, especially with our California upbringing and now lives on the East Coast, how we feel about the home state we were brought up. I too only go back now to visit my parents and extended family. When it comes to progressivism--California has proven as of late to be kind of schizophrenic (ex: Prop 8 being an example). At any rate, you are becoming the prolific blogger, keep up the great work! Best always, Nemat, from New York City

  2. I so agree with you. I've been shocked over the past decade at the conservatism I've seen in California. At the same time, there's something about those balmy evenings and the scent of eucalyptus and jasmine in the air...

  3. Beautiful. Puts me in mind of another ambivalent work about California: "The Last Resort" by the Eagles.

    They call it Paradise.
    I don't know why.
    You call someplace Paradise,
    Kiss it goodbye.

  4. Oh my God, Martha, this gave me goose bumps that just won't go away. How you weave your thoughts of home and California with what is happening in the country and what is happening with your aging parents is brilliant and such exquisite writing. Thank you!

  5. Thanks so much for your compliments, I really appreciate them. Karen, I know you know how hard it is to get one's work out there. And oh yes, Nemat, I'm blogging now as both a professional obligation and personal pleasure. The magazine field has changed so much in just the past year that I'm doing what I've meant to do for a long time.

  6. I was just poking around on, my favorite apocalyptism site, and found that the entry from a week after this one is about another Tea Party event, the one in Washington, which the author stumbled across just as you did. He noticed not only the whiteness of the crowd but also the age range (exclusively baby boomers, nobody older or younger) and working class physiques and clothing styles: "middle-aged, obese, shabbily dressed, melanin-challenged" was his description.

    It reminded me of a snippet of autobiography by a man who left a small Southern town in the late 1950s to become a college professor in the North and returned a decade later with his Northern-bred wife and kids. Just before his return, the local beach had been desegregated, an event the writer would once have regarded as being "in the realm of science fiction" but after ten years of integrated beaches up North it didn't seem at all strange. What was strange was a number of white people in street clothes, working class street clothes, who just stood on the beach staring. These, he was told, were the diehard segregationists.

    It sounds like the same people as in the Tea Party protests. Then their distress was eventually expressed in the presidential candidacy of George Wallace. So I expect that in two or three years we'll see another "white backlash" candidate come forward, maybe as a Republican contender, maybe as an independent.

  7. So telling, this backlash sparked by closeted racism, and how potent that "secret" rage really is. I agree, we'll see another white-supremacist candidate step forward, although he or she will be cloaked as a "defender of freedom" or a "soccer mom." I just pray that the candidate isn't Sarah Palin.