Once More, Into the Malaise

It is late Friday morning. The sun has vaulted high over the steep, wild hill that sits right outside my motel room window. There is a slight breeze off the ocean, and the sky is clear and blue. I have come here to play golf with an old friend, wrapping up a two-week vacation, and also to speak to Cal Poly journalism students at their year-end banquet.

The golf part is done. Birds had little to fear from my shots today, but I did leave many a ground squirrel rattled. It didn't matter. The golf course was set on the southern lip of Morro Bay, at the border of a subdivision. It presented a series of spectacular, unfettered views of the estuary, of a long, immaculate sandspit and, in the distance, of the graceful hulk of Morro Rock.

"Just imagine how it looked," my friend said gloomily, "before all the houses."

He is a California native, and beset with a malady rampant in this state. It is essentially a vision problem. The eyes no longer see the beauty of what is, but instead focus on what was. From the eyes the pox will travel--to the head, to the heart--leaving its victims convinced that California is a lost cause, sunk, goners, dead. Whining is an early symptom. In the latter stages, though, the disease can drive the inflicted to Nevada, which, of course, is a lot like dying.


But that was this morning. Tonight the journalism students will want to know what I do. The more promising ones also will want to know why. These are questions I thought about often during my vacation. When I began writing this column nearly three years ago, an editor issued this simple command: Explain California to Californians. The more I travel the state, the more I wonder about the assignment's fundamental premise.

From my experience, the notion of California as a singular, cohesive place, with shared assets and obligations and difficulties and dreams, has become antique. There always have been yawning internal divisions between north and south over water and power, but these historic regional feuds appear to have been replaced by something worse: Indifference.

San Francisco doesn't care much about Sacramento, which doesn't care much about Fresno, which doesn't care at all about Bakersfield, which cares about Los Angeles only in terms of how long it will take before the big bad city comes hurtling over the Tehachapi and into Kern County. Every place I go--from Mt. Shasta to San Ysidro--people seem too absorbed in their own brand of bleakness to worry about anyone or anywhere else.

The one belief Californians do hold in common is that it all has gone to hell. Southlanders who pine for San Francisco might be interested to know San Franciscans pine for places like Seattle. Anywhere but here. Anywhere where it's like this place used to be--or at least how we imagined it. In Fresno everyone wants to escape to the foothills or the coast. In the foothills and on the coast, no one is quite sure where to move next; they nervously scout for options as the refugees pour in.


As I said, this is a vision problem, an inability to see beyond the most recent disaster, to regard change as anything other than loss. Californians are scared. They have lost faith. In another time, a Roosevelt or even a Reagan might have come along and, pushing off from the downbeat pack, turned the malaise around. Nothing to fear but fear itself. And there you go again. And all that.

Not this time, not this California. Instead, politicians from Pete Wilson and Kathleen Brown on down have fed the collective anxiety, promoting fear, playing it for votes. Business executives have gloom-and- doomed their way to tax breaks. The press, too, has enjoyed its long run with the tale of paradise lost. And like all untrue stories, the more it is told, the easier it becomes to believe.

And so back to the students' questions. Why do I do what I do? My answer tonight will be this: My answer will be that I cling to this crazy notion that, in ways that go beyond geography, there is still a California, and it is worth writing about. It is a place of great beauty and untouched promise, and it is nothing like the California of political commercials and Time magazine covers.

Now, I will concede maybe I'm the one who is blind. Maybe I am tricked by mirages, guilty for my own reasons of wanting to see something too much. Certainly, I've failed so far to open many eyes; the malaise runs free. Still, I suppose there is fulfillment enough in trying. And it beats the alternatives. Which are whining, and Nevada.

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