November 18, 2008

When Living in Paradise Totally Blows

As a lifelong Southern California resident, I should be used to it by now: autumn, my favorite SoCal "season" of the year, is gradually losing its luster to hysterical rages from Mother Nature. Yes, hellish firestorms, torrential downpours, and paralyzing mudslides have all played deadly parts in the recent history of our semi-arid Gomorrah-by-the-Sea, of course—but the real culprit, in my mind, is one of the all-time demonic Grendels of California climatology: the ferocious Santa Ana winds. More and more, it seems, my home has become the wretched center of a whirling blast-furnace, a hideous vortex of meteorological angst—and those are the good days, mind you.

And yes, folks, I'm gonna be one of those people who whines and bitches too much about the fucking weather—the weather that we Southern Californians are somehow not supposed to understand or experience. Indeed, many of us go all to pieces after the first rains of the season trickle in, forgetting how to drive in inclement conditions and devolving into idiot teenage speed-demons on the slick freeways of the Southland. But good goddamn, when the fiendish easterlies begin booming in from Death Valley—and certain other places someone like Cain would recognize—and start sparking violent orgies of flame from the San Andreas to the sea, it doesn't just ask to be whined about; it demands a full-scale hair-tearing and Hawaiian-shirt-rending. And yet somehow, this appropriate and necessary reflex is waved off as a weakness by some of my more esteemed neighbors.

You see, last year at around this time, eruptions of fire decimated the hills of not only Malibu (a perennial victim) and Orange County, but also threatened to engulf the entire greater San Diego area—and ladies and gentlemen, when Tony Gwynn, the King of San Diego, must evacuate his Poway mansion, there is a massive Disturbance in the Force. Massive enough for the more literary-minded people of SoCal to yet again disinter that fabled passage from Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem and plaster it all over every newspaper, magazine, screenplay, billboard, and ass crack from Palos Verdes to Pomona. You know the one—say it with me now:

There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sand storms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night.

I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.
Sounds about right to me. She continues:
It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination. The city burning is Los Angeles's deepest image of itself. Nathaniel West perceived that, in The Day of the Locust, and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end.

Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds shows us how close to the edge we are.
Now that's a cinch, right? Violence, doom, and the end of the world all rolled into one. Didion's #1 fanboy Bret Easton Ellis, for one, let more than a little of that shit seep into Less than Zero, didn't he? Of course he did, man. As for me, well, it certainly seemed like the apocalypse when I walked out the door one morning in October 1993, smelled smoke, and looked west to see Laguna Beach consumed by flames and belching smoke miles into the sky. Ash flakes fell like snow and refugees poured into my high school, which served as a disaster relief area for the next two weeks. People lost their fucking homes, and yet the Homecoming Game still went on as planned. Rock and roll, bitches! Shut the hell up and as you were, you pussies!

So naturally, when flaming destruction stomped SoCal with a vengeance in 2007, the literati went all Didion on us, and some people backlashed immediately—L.A. denizens who really should have known better, natives who baited the Furies with their every posturing keystroke. Local luminaries like noted political bloviato-blogger Kevin Drum:
I'm curious about something. I've lived in Southern California my entire life, and this just doesn't bear any resemblance to anything I know about the place. Santa Ana winds are just....Santa Ana winds. They do whip up brush fires, as Didion says, but otherwise her description seems way, way over the top. Sure, the weather feels a little weird when Santa Anas kick up, but teachers don't cancel classes, pets don't go nuts, people don't stay inside their houses, and Los Angeles doesn't get gripped in crime waves. At least, not as far as I know.
Kevin, Kevin, Kevin. You knew better than this. Nothing is too over the top, too excessive, or too hyperbolic when describing this foul phenomenon. But macho climactic projection was not only strong with the Calpundit—it ensnared my fellow Gaucho and then-L.A. Times opinion editor Matt Welch, who seconded Drum, backing him up thusly with this tidbit from Jon Healey:
This, I believe, gets close to the heart of the Joan Didion Problem. She is such a gifted descriptive writer that she often can't resist the temptation to wrap her otherwise keen observations with some Chandleresque hyperbole, just to see how the language turns out. It's delightful to read, and leaves lasting impressions on your brain, but many of the impressions are, regrettably, not true. Not only that, but they advertise some near-secretive knowledge -- hey wait, all this time I've been living here and I didn't realize that the Santa Anas were the primordial force unleashing the dark side of human desire?? -- allowing readers to congratulate themselves on being among the minority to break the SoCal code. It's like when postgrads first stumble upon the sunshine/noir dialectic, or when yet another searing cultural critic sees a book-length metaphor in the fact that (gasp!) Brian Wilson couldn't surf.
Dude, even if "sunshine noir" weren't a super-sexy, trendy, Keir-come-lately obsession of mine, I'd still be ashamed if I wrote that. Mock the vicious halitosis of Mother Nature at your own personal risk, man. I have no idea what prompted Welch to let that one squeak by—perhaps his impending fatherhood and move to D.C. was dulling any resistance to moody metaphysical metaphor—but all of these otherwise incisive and talented men totally whiffed on a beautiful, fat-hanging-curveball of embarrassing opportunity. Hell yes they did—because as anyone with simultaneous functioning allergies to bone-dry heat and chilly, recycled air-conditioning will tell you, old Joanie didn't go nearly far enough in her searing indictment of the Santa Anas.

Fuck no she didn't, because the Santa Anas are always, always an unregenerate force of Satan, which they proved yet again last week when they caused fires—or perhaps caused people to cause fires, but who gives a shit, it's the same thing anymore—to char both Montecito (in the laist photo above) and Sylmar into stinking, smoking cinders. Obviously, something or someone in those cities had offended the Gods to a heinous degree, because when Christopher Lloyd's house is destroyed and Oprah's remains intact, the universe is way, way out of balance. Like totally, dude.

So no, it shouldn't be a surprise that terrible disaster-by-fire prompts the Bethlehem passage-quotes out of people who admire that piece of writing (which my three antagonists above nevertheless acknowledge was pretty damn good). The ominous sense of foreboding is a direct result of a healthy respect—based in bowel-shaking fear, of course—of eerie karmaic judgement from a force far, far beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals. It's never a sign of weakness to acknowledge the awesome destructive power of metaphorical doom, gentlemen. It's certainly a sign of dangerously tone-deaf denial to pretend otherwise.

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