Newsletter: Essential California: The weight of uncertainty

Two men boarding up a storefront on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Jet Sets construction crew members Victor Cortez, left, and Samuel Lopez work on boarding up a storefront on Hollywood Boulevard the day before the election.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Nov. 3, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

A few years ago, researchers at University College London published a study looking at the role of uncertainty in stress. It’s not worth getting into the full mechanics of the experiment here, but it involved a group of volunteers playing a game where certain choices might lead to mildly painful electric shocks.

One might presume that the volunteers would be most stressed when they knew with 100% certainty that they were about to receive an electric shock. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, it was situations where they had a 50% chance of getting shocked that proved to be most stressful. In short, the stress of uncertainty was “significantly” worse than the stress of guaranteed pain. It’s the not knowing that really gets to us.


“It’s the uncertainty that makes us anxious,” study co-author Dr. Robb Rutledge explained. “The same is likely to apply in many familiar situations, whether it’s waiting for medical results or information on train delays.”

Or, in this case, waiting for the results of the most contentious presidential election in modern history. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, it’s likely that you see the stakes as existential and the choice as nothing less than a referendum on the future of our country. And that tension has been exponentially intensified by fears of election-related violence and unrest, which are widespread among voters of both parties here in California.

I can’t say I was surprised by the flurry of construction crews I saw boarding up storefronts in downtown Los Angeles yesterday morning. In fact, I had spent part of last week talking to companies preparing to do just that.

[See also: “Boarded-up stores from Figueroa Street to Rodeo Drive speak to an anxious election day across L.A.” in the Los Angeles Times

But then you stop for a minute, look out in front of you and remember that all of this is for an election in the United States of America. It’s hard not to feel the sudden, sorrowful weight of it, or the unreality of the moment. Many of my colleagues have been fitted for gas masks, and some have even been given bulletproof vests. To cover an American election.

“What strikes me about all of this is the vagueness of the perceived threat. Who do people think is coming? Proud boys? Antifa? Looting opportunists? Peaceful protesters? Federal forces? I struggle to picture exactly *who* cities are fortifying against,” the New York Times writer Emily Badger wrote on Twitter, alongside photos of plywood scenes from the nation’s capital. “The generalized anxiety feels like the culmination of everything about 2020.”

The feeling is not unlike that of the early days of March, when the future still seemed capable of branching in any number of directions. We find ourselves once again hoping the anxiety will be for naught, that certain preparations will seem absurd and overreactive in the light of whatever comes next.

[See also: “‘What will happen?’ Among an anxious electorate, some plan to move, others buy guns” in the Los Angeles Times]

So here is my small election prayer: May people have no reason to take to the streets. May the most sacred of rights — a citizen’s ability to cast their vote and have that ballot counted — not be infringed upon anywhere in this great nation. May our country and its people respect the democratic process, even if it takes days or weeks for certain results. May our biggest problem in a few days’ time be that the shopkeepers of Rodeo Drive are furious they lost out on two days of perfectly good pre-holiday shopping time because of the city’s decision to proactively close the luxury shopping district ahead of potential protests.

In the meantime, take a deep breath. Go for a walk. Check in on a friend. As my colleague Jessica Roy writes, beyond casting your ballot and making sure your friends and family have done the same, there isn’t a ton you can do right now. No amount of refreshing homepages or flipping between cable news channels will make the results come any faster, so you might as well retain your sanity.

[See also: “How to relax during election week and do something other than doomscrolling” in the Los Angeles Times]

More presidential election coverage:

  • What you should know about how and when California counts ballots: While the long wait for election results is unfamiliar in other parts of the country, it’s common practice in the Golden State. Los Angeles Times
  • How Facebook and Twitter plan to handle election day disinformation: Tech platforms are simultaneously a central source of information for voters and a morass of fake news, rumors and disinformation that aim to alter the democratic process. Los Angeles Times
  • A number of pro-Trump caravans across the U.S. snarled traffic and raised tensions in some cities over the weekend, most notably in Texas, where the FBI is investigating after pro-Trump drivers surrounded a Biden-Harris campaign bus on an interstate. Los Angeles Times
  • A federal judge in Texas on Monday rejected a Republican attempt to invalidate about 127,000 votes in this year’s presidential election because drive-through polling centers established during the coronavirus pandemic were used to cast ballots. Los Angeles Times

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

California is no longer the state with the highest number of coronavirus cases, as Texas officially surpassed the overall case count despite having 10 million fewer residents, data compiled by The Times show. The Lone Star State’s leapfrog illustrates the magnitude to which COVID-19 cases are surging there and the extent to which California — so far — has escaped the significant spikes striking many other parts of the United States. Los Angeles Times

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.


Grades of D and F have increased in the Los Angeles Unified School District among middle and high school students in a troubling sign of the toll that distance learning — and the coronavirus crisis — is taking on the children, especially those who are members of low-income families. Los Angeles Times

Where to eat near 21 of L.A.'s most prominent voting centers, in case you get hungry while doing your civic duty. Eater LA

People in a food hall
Yes, you can vote at Grand Central Market this year.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Voting is sexy in Hollywood: “From thirst trap Instagram posts to political ads featuring nudity and innuendo, celebrities are putting (almost) all out there to encourage voting this election.” The Hollywood Reporter

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The U.S. detained migrant children for far longer than previously known. At least 942 children have spent a year or longer in shelters since late September 2014. Los Angeles Times


A Northern California judge tentatively ruled that Gov. Gavin Newsom overstepped his authority when he issued an order in June requiring vote-by-mail ballots to be sent to the state’s 21 million registered voters. The judge also issued an injunction barring the governor from taking executive action that “changes existing statutory law or makes new statutory law or legislative policy,” rebuking a governor who has relied heavily on executive orders to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Los Angeles Times

Billions have been spent on California’s ballot measure battles. But this year is unlike any other. Los Angeles Times

San Francisco Board of Supervisors races aren’t drawing much attention. Here’s why they still matter. San Francisco Chronicle

Silicon Valley’s chamber of commerce has dissolved its political action committee amid the fallout from a racist attack ad it had commissioned last week in a San Jose City Council race. Mercury News


“They’re taking advantage of everybody.” Why some Bay Area restaurants refuse to use delivery apps. SF Gate

This Southern California radio station will make its annual switchover to nonstop Christmas music this Thursday. It begins at 8 a.m. Orange County Register

A poem to start your Tuesday: “Revolutionary Letter #1" by Diane di Prima.

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Los Angeles: partly sunny, 77. San Diego: partly sunny, 72. San Francisco: partly sunny, 64. San Jose: partly sunny, 75. Fresno: sunny, 81. Sacramento: sunny, 79. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Eric Kaminsky:

In 1958, we moved from Azusa to Panorama City. I was with my mother as she drove her stick-shift Studebaker to our new house. We were on the San Bernardino Freeway (now referred to as “the 10 Freeway”) where it crossed the Los Angeles River. We were on the uphill side of the bridge and traffic was bumper-to-bumper and stop-and-go. Each time my mother started to go, she would take her foot off the brake to push the accelerator, and each time it rolled back on the car behind us. Finally the other driver got out of the car and gave my mother a lesson: Use the emergency break to keep from rolling back. She never forgot the lesson, and neither have I. Thankfully the rest of the trip was uneventful.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.