Late last month, Gov. Jerry Brown introduced a “deputy first dog” named Cali Brown. A brief video clip — posted on the Twitter feed of actual first dog Colusa Brown — showed the 2-month old puppy running through the governor’s office; the tweet drew more than 750 likes.
This raises a number of issues, not least why a dog, even a governor’s dog, should have a Twitter feed, but that’s the world we live in now. More important, I find it disappointing that the governor should have chosen to name his new bordoodle Cali, the unpretty and decidedly dismissive nickname for the state.
What is it about California that we are always trying to reduce it? Why do we fall back on the stereotype that we are not quite serious? Just consider some other nicknames for the whole state and its communities: Left Coast, Lotus Land, Berzerkeley, La La Land. Since 1968, we have suffered the official puffery of “the Golden State” — Bear Flag State would be a much better official nickname — and the more vernacular choices descend into self-ridicule.
I’m declaring a moratorium on ‘Cali,’ and I’d like to retire every other nickname too.
I’m reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright’s put-down of Southern California: “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” It’s not that Wright is incorrect, exactly, but that he gets the emphasis the wrong. The looseness he derides, the influx of the adventurous and unsatisfied, is what has always made California vibrant, complicated and rich.
I’m declaring a moratorium on “Cali,” and I’d like to retire every other nickname too. Let’s call ourselves California and be done with it.
The word California first appeared in the 1510 Spanish romance “The Adventures of Esplandián” by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo; it refers to a mythic island presided over by a black warrior queen called Califia, inhabited entirely by women ( “in the manner of Amazons”) and guarded by native griffins. Thirty years later, explorers applied the name to Baja California, which was mistakenly believed to be an island into the 17th century.
That’s a telling origin story, not least because even after they knew better, the Spaniards kept the myth. Like a Woody Allen character, or the creators of “Saturday Night Live’s” “The Californians,” they preferred to stick to their preconceptions rather than engaging the place on its own terms.
Farther north, another mythmaker, Sir Francis Drake, more prosaically claimed Nova Albion — “Albion” is Britain’s origin name — for queen and country in 1579. Somehow, New England on the West Coast seems as fantastical as Queen Califia’s realm. (The best guess is that Drake planted his flag, so to speak, at Point Reyes, possibly having missed the Golden Gate in the fog.)
California isn’t improved when it’s defined by legend — a “Terrestrial Paradise,” to borrow Rodríguez de Montalvo’s phrase — or preconceived otherness. We’re better understood as solid ground, attached to the rest of North America, where people live and work and struggle, where we are not exotic but real.
In his 2004 documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” the filmmaker Thom Andersen made a similar case in regard to the city and the way it is characterized, arguing against calling Los Angeles by the familiar “L.A.” (“Only a city with an inferiority complex would allow it,” his narrator intones.)
I agree with Anderson. No “Sacto” for Sacramento, no “Frisco” for San Francisco, and no “Cali” for California. Such names shrink the lens, narrow the focus, make us less than we are.
Not long after I arrived in California, a friend and I were discussing the divided nature of the state. We weren’t thinking about secession, Jefferson or any other split-the-state fantasy (the latest, called CAL 3, may make the November ballot). What we agreed on is this: There is more that binds Californians to one another than divides us, that north and south, inland and coast, the state is unified, in some paradoxical manner, by its lack of unity, its sprawling de-centeredness.
At some point, we turned to the terms NorCal and SoCal, two more unlovely abbreviations that signify a kind of tribalism. Why not adjust the names to illustrate an affinity other than map placement? What about NoCal and LoCal instead?
It was an obvious joke, and more than a little silly, although it still makes me laugh. But at its center is some sort of truth. Just as there is barely any difference between NoCal and LoCal, so too are the differences between us exaggerated. Whatever else we are, we fit together here in California — a state with a history and a present as complicated as its name.
David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion.
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