Are we stupid, or are we bitchen?
The bucolic orchards and rolling vistas that beckoned decades ago from real-estate and tourism ads have been paved over and smogged up.
Real-estate developers are scabbing over the remaining land with home designs combining features you can't stand with a price you can't afford.
Our electric bills arrive making a whirring, reaming sound.
We're running out of water.
The only person who'd feel at home in our ocean is Mr. Ty-D-Bol.
Our highways have become an SUV asshole derby.
Innocent kids with the wrong skin tone or musical tastes get framed into prison sentences, while wealthy landlords can bilk poor tenants of millions and get named to cozy ambassadorships.
Disney gets millions in municipal concessions and freeway access ramps to feed its colossal dud of a theme park depicting a faux California, while surviving outposts of the real California, such as Linda's Doll Hut, fall victim to that freeway construction.
Why do we stay here? Howdo we stay here?
Myself, I've learned how to squint. You squint hard enough, and you can filter out the horrid stuff—most of it—and still see nearly enough of the old California bitchenness to sustain you for another day.
[Let's cue in the narrator voice here. It's IMAX California!]
It was here before we were, waiting in the land, this boundless, bountiful potential, yearning for millennia for the white man to come plunge his dick into the soil and proclaim, "Eureka! From this seed of the land and the seed of mine own genius there shall spring wondrous monsters!" Great coursing arterial systems clogged with chromed platelets! Mammon's lipsticked ass lit up and named Hollywood! The chocolate-covered banana that shall rise from fair Balboa and spill its nuts upon the Earth! Drunk with Rogaine, becalmed by Prozac, smitten with J.Lo, hopin' for a blo-jo in yo Fo-runna Toyo. Ta. You are California Man. This place made you; you made it bitchen.
The camera swoops skyward. You're lousy with vertigo, suspended over California as seen from a satellite. It's so beautiful up here, the city grids assuming a crystalline beauty as night spreads like pancake syrup over the state, each city pulsing like a circuit board of jewels in a transistor radio playing the Animals' "It's My Life" as you're driving with the top down on Commonwealth looking for girl life.
It must be lonely to be a satellite. If you were searching for a children's book to really bum out your kid, one with a characted named Timmy the Lonely Satellite would be the way to go. If you were a satellite for even a couple of days, you'd probably really get hungry for being somewhere with a sense of community.
More on that later. Right now, I'm enjoying sitting in my Costa Mesa abode writing this, though I'd rather be stretching out under the olive tree and watching the late afternoon light ripple through the leaves.
In fact, that's what I just did. It's five hours and a trip to Wahoo's later, and I'm much better for it. Maybe tomorrow I'll go to the beach before I resume this. . . .
Well, I did, heading down the peninsula, giving a shout out to my favorite acupuncturist, Maret Kunze, at her Long Life Medical Clinic, and then watching the waves do the wave thing for a while.
We take such things for granted, but there are not many places in the country where you are able to give a shout out to your favorite acupuncturist. I mean, there are states where they can't even figure out what to do with an avocado, while here, we actually live up to the Johnny Carson gag perception of Californians as goat-cheese-worshiping, pompous, pilates-practicing whackheads.
We will eat anything. This is the place where new foods are introduced into the American consciousness. You could add a foodstuff called Australian Toilet Shrimp to your menu, and people would order it. Eight months later, you'd see it appearing in health-food stores here as a miracle shampoo ingredient. Within 15 years, I predict one of the SoCal network-news affiliates will have a weatherman named Rustic Arugula.
I've traveled, and even people in other lands who claim to dislike the USA's whole vibe are fascinated with California.
"If you turned the country on its side, everything loose would fall into Southern California." That's what Frank Lloyd Wright had to say about the place a half-century ago. It's where the pioneer spirit ran out of West. So instead, the folks who had to stop here kept moving by creating a transitory fantasy world.
It's where the palm trees meet the pines, with a dollop of Hawaii's island mood (hey, do check out the highly cool "Inventing Paradise: Hawaiian Image and Popular Culture" exhibit at the Fullerton Museum Center), some wind-blown desert weirdness, a bit of that Mexico/Zorro thing, some Chandler noir and Wolfe pump-house light, with a wash of transplanted Benzedrine hillbilly madness and surf-movie insouciance. It's the home of the movies, TV, theme parks, trebly Fender guitars, and real-estate developments named for the nature they've wiped out.
What does all this have to do with Brea, you might ask? Nothing. Brea has nothing to do with anything. Flee it, and don't look back.
But for the rest of us, it's part of who we are, this ever-changing, rootless thing. I think that's because our paradise is a fiction, written with aqueducts and distant dams. We're a desert, Jack. Look at our pre-Colombian past. This wasn't a bountiful paradise: the original inhabitants of OC had a ratio of practically no one per acre, and they barely grubbed out an existence on acorns and mackerel.
We're here and well-hydrated only due to the good graces of a lot of piped-in water. The fact that we actually live in an earthquake-prone, inhospitable desert is something I think we each organically feel, deep down, all the time. It makes us antsy. It also makes us create, building layer upon layer of fantasy as if it could stave off reality in times of crisis.
Are we on the brink of times of crisis? I dunno. Right now, I can't think past Halloween and how Knott's Berry Farm could really one-up the competition in the fright-night business by running ads that mention, "Hey, we really kill people at our park!"
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I'm old enough to remember when Knott's didn't have a fence around it and it didn't cost anything to get in (the park initially claimed they enclosed it to keep the hippies out. The hippies are gone, guys; you can open up again). I remember when it cost $3.50 to see Led Zeppelin and Tull at the Anaheim Convention Center.
I'm older than rope. As such, when I squint upon the things I love in Orange County still, they tend either to be the enduring bits of nature or things that reflect California's golden era—the craftsman homes of Old Town Orange, Fullerton's old downtown, Laguna's ramshackle hill streets, Silverado Canyon and such. I like new things; I just wish they didn't suck so hard.
Like Timmy the Lonely Satellite, I look for things that make me feel there is a sense of community here, and there's plenty. You won't find a vibrant street caf life necessarily, but volunteer for a cause or two sometime, and you'll sure find you're not alone. OC is crawling with nice people. You don't even have to squint at them.
There is still much to love in our scruffy old county, as these following pages will attest, along with some places that are fun to revile. Are we nuts to stay here? Eat your way through Anaheim's La Palma Chicken Pie Shop. See Chris Gaffney at the Swallows in Capistrano. Catch some jazz at Steamers in Fullerton. Take a few dozen spins around the traffic circle in Orange. Then you tell us.