Imagining Orange County

Its not the O.C., not Disneyland, not Newport. Eight writers imagine the real place you call home

Illustration by Mark DancyA FEW QUESTIONS

I've lived in Orange County for nine years now, and I have a few questions:

1. Why do so many video clerks and other people in retail offer zero resistance to their bosses' demands they spout corporate chatter to their customers? The other day, a Vons employee who was opening his check stand cheerfully announced to me, "At Vons, there's never a line!" and I had to double check his lips because I could've sworn what I heard was advertising babble drifting down at me from a store intercom in the ceiling. Why was he talking like that? Why do so many of these employees embrace corporate-speak with an unironic zeal that suggests not so much that they believe this shit but that they relish the opportunity to give up being human beings for however long their shifts last? And how much of this is an OC thing?

2. Why do so many white guys in their 30s and 40s who've lived in Fountain Valley or Tustin all their lives suddenly start acquiring what sounds like a Western twang to their voices, sometimes even a sort of late-period-John-Wayne hitch to their walks? Why this appeal to a tradition that's not even theirs? These are the same men who suffer from that painful inner conflict sociologists have been noting in suburban males since the '50s, the one that pits their genetic Manhood (which tells them to fight, fornicate, dominate) against their learned desire to be domesticated Dads and Hubbies (some of them even call themselves Hubbies). These are also guys who get slightly drunk at their kids' birthday parties, and while they explain to you how well the remodeling is going ("I'm just a-waitin' on the linoleum now"), you can sometimes catch a flash of crash-dive bewilderment on their faces as they realize for just a second they're living not in a John Wayne movie but in a Talking Heads song.

3. Why have so many OC "moms" (often identified as such on the personalized-license-plate frames of their SUVs) narrowed their interests so much that, though they're educated and very nice people when you talk to them—heartbreakingly committed to their children and their neighborhood schools, with sufficient sympathy to feel really terrible when your kids, say, fall off their bikes and have to get stitches—they nonetheless sort of pretend the larger world (of accelerated environmental havoc, of dead Iraqi children, of a 12.5 percent children's poverty rate in their own country) doesn't exist, from which one can only conclude that either they're absolutely terrified of that world, or they truly and deeply don't care, or they've made a pact with themselves—at who knows what psychic cost—not to think about the bad things because if they do, they won't be able to enjoy the good things—the SUV, South Coast Plaza, the goal their kid scores at soccer—and life is to be enjoyed, isn't it? Isn't it?

4.Why is it that so many bright, well-groomed, extremely well-behaved men and women raised in Calvary Chapel Schools end up bright, well-groomed, extremely well-behaved corporate hacks in Laguna Niguel? Santa Ana? Why, when I see them at Starbucks smoothing their ties or pulling their skirts to their knees while dutifully examining their day planners, do they sometimes get that same look of crash-dive bewilderment as the slightly drunk suburban Hubby?

5. And, really, how did all this fucking money get here?

This all sounds negative, I know, but you cut through the insistent blare of OC boosterism however you can.

Listen, Orange County is a very interesting and very, very strange place, where rampant Disneyfication, Christian fundamentalism, suburban complacency and late-model consumer capitalism all sleep in the same bed (and whoa, what dreams may come when those four are spooning). Where earnestness, innocence, crazy ambition and ignorance still thrive together in classic American Dream style, and where the results are, all at once, beautiful, beguiling and ruinous. Where widespread evidence of bewildered disappointment seems to do nothing to quash the hopes of those who think they're on their way up. And for a place that's so postmodern—so Edge City, so tech- and money-adoring, so future-minded, so past-bereft—it's remarkably free of postmodernism's emotional ground tone, which is irony. This is one serious place: God, Mammon, entertainment—there are major shrines here to them all, and sometimes they're the same shrine (Crystal Cathedral).

And so if I were a sociologist bent on discovering where the American future lies, I think I could do worse than spend my Sunday morning at Calvary Chapel or Rock Harbor, my happy hours at Newport Beach zinc bars with young entrepreneurs wearing their Mercedes-logo cufflinks, and the rest of the time darting between Disneyland and its prodigious progeny: Knott's, the Block, every theme restaurant in the county, and every store where employees are called "team members" and customers "guests."

But this isn't really a job for a sociologist; this is a job for a fiction writer, the novelist who, as D.H. Lawrence put it, writes "the bright book of life," who represents the inner life of consciousness and the outer life of society and imagines how they work together. And Orange County does have its chroniclers in fiction.

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