Sunday, March 17, 2013


What is the image conjured in your mind when I use the word "Californian"?  I ask because I've been in San Francisco all week, visiting my sisters and mother who have lived out here for years. My sister Claudia has been here since her mid thirties, in the same beautiful flat on Russian Hill.  Every time I visit, I am struck of course by the beauty of the place, by Golden Gate park and the view of the city along that beautiful waterfront in Sausalito, by the majestic sweep of the Headlands, when we walk the dogs up there, by the quaint cafes and shops by the many interesting and friendly kinds of people.  There is a diversity to this place, which is somehow different from the diversity of Northern Virginia where I live.  And my family is happy here, extraordinarily so, feeling that for them this is the place to be - that to choose another location would be a conscious choice of second fiddle.

Yet something inside me resists.  There's something I can't get past.  And that's how very California it all is. But what do I mean by that?

The phrase I started out with "the Californian and the girl with him" is a  play on a Hemingway description "the American and the girl with him" - from his short story "Hills Like White Elephants." I often teach that story to my students.  I ask them what the image evokes.  We end up reflecting how though most of us in the classroom are American, we don't consider ourselves to be typical.  Being of many ethnicities and religions we feel quite individual. Yet, we go on to concede, that if we were to be transplanted overseas, to take a stroll in say, Barcelona, that most would be instantly recognizable as American.

Maybe it has something to do with the way we carry ourselves, the way we hold our bodies.  With the loudness of our voices.  With our enthusiasms.  Or maybe it has to do with our clothing. As Henry James once wrote, and I'm paraphrasing here, the American wore new clothes that looked old, while the European wore old clothes that looked new.  I think there's something of that in the American even today - maybe even in those Americans who don't look typical - those who wear the hijab, for instance.

I'm reminded here of Kingsley Amis writing about how every noun is changed for the worse when you use the adjective 'American' before it.  He goes down a list which includes psychiatrist, and American psychiatrist and ends up with penis and American penis. 

But I was talking about California, and even after several years of coming out here I still can't quite put my finger on what it is.  I notice that when I use the word my family members bristle a bit. When I called something Californian the other morning, my mother was quick to correct me.  "There's a big difference between San Francisco," she said, "and the rest of California."

"All right," I said.

So maybe it's the question of history.  I can't help noticing that the veneer of history is terribly thin. "Not so," said my sister Stephanie. "The Gold Rush is enormously important to the history of this state."

Hmm.  I'm still not quite convinced. I wonder why none of them is the least bit interested in the new film Lincoln.  They had no desire to see or even hear about it.  Also when I accompanied my mother to her memoir group last week,  one woman wrote about how things had changed - she was talking about the enormous changes in Sausalito since 1990.

But these are tiny examples.  So maybe it's more about religion - or the lack of distinction in that?  I don't know.  My sister asked whether the Biblical references in my novel would narrow its readership.  She pointed out that her husband Dylan would not understand them - and nor would many people she knew. "Maybe it's just California," she said.

The closest I can get to understanding what I mean when I talk about the Californian cast on San Francisco - might be found in the very largeness of the physical beauty here.  Maybe the country is just so hugely beautiful - the hills and the bay and the bridges, the wonderful undulating streets of the place, that this sweeps away all differences in the people who inhabit it.  The landscape becomes bigger than the sense of inner life.  It was the same in Italy.  They are living in this landscape and it simply takes over their consciousness. You never want to block it out.  Why would you? You want instead to embrace it, to meld yourself to it. So other musings and jarring thoughts are simply swept aside.  When you observe the generalizations, you see a people so united in their love of this place, that they've left their history behind them and joined a new reality.

Why does that not appeal to me? Maybe I'm simply not ready for perfection!

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