California, California You're such a wonder That I think I'll stay in bed Big time rollers, part-time models So much to plunder That I think I'll sleep instead
Ain't it a shamethat all the world Can't enjoy your mad traditions? Ain't it a shame that all the world Don't got keys to their own ignitions? Life is the longest death in California
— Rufus Wainwright
Chaucer Dad and Philosopher Mom live in the faculty housing compound on the edge of the campus of doctoral university, which is itself a little slice of dystopic hell: a company town filled with the academic version of the Desperate Housewives: professors of both genders and their partners (again of both genders) living in a mix of suburban track and hodge-podge designer homes (here a Cape Cod, there a modern Californian), whose magnified socio-professional competitions on campus lead to conflict and petty disagreement chez eux over the size of exterior patios, the height of the hedge rows, and whether plantings are blocking “the commons.” The already small battleground of academia becomes even more miniscule when you’ve got to field complaints about which fern is blocking which access to the burnt, parched lawns that no one walks on, except maybe to relieve the dog. Ridiculous!
There is no socialising, for the most part, and very little empathy. The child-rearing competition is fierce, unfriendly, and takes no prisoners, as it is in most BoBo communities, of which this is a strange example. At night, the curtains are drawn and the community retreats, but even during the day the complex has an abandoned quality, an aspect of moonscape, albeit with those Californian touches that enamour, like the fragrant lavender and rosemary in places. People come and go in their ubiquitous two to three cars, and most gardens remain weedy and undeveloped, surrounded by brown patches of grass (apparently the sprinkler system is suffering from systemic sabotage by some mild-mannered egghead ecoterrorist who continually destroys the timing apparatus, no doubt to save water but at a steep aesthetic price. I ask you: is it worth it?). Do people live in these houses? Theoretically yes, although in practice I’m not sure. There is a creepy feeling, as if the neighbors will only come out to eat you, or suck out your brain or drag you under the house to feed on your bones. Beyond the perimeter of this compound, right on the other side of a haimische countrified wooden fence, the town begins and glowers, astronomical housing prices and indifference and ressentiment towards the university laying thick on the ground.
The Town around the Gown is as ridiculous as the university in its pretensions, its misguided community principles, its distorted self-conception. Eco-friendly soccer moms and dads with environmental bumper stickers on their SUVs cruise too fast down streets designed for about 20,000 less residents. The crystal worshippers and gym aficionados and mountain bikers and obsessive joggers and jewelry designers and moon goddesses and cognitive therapists gather and depart from several nodes of “community”: the local cafés (Starhooch is for the homeless and tourists; too corporate, you understand), the gym, the yoga studio, the nature reserves, the art cinema. At City Hall and the county offices and the local newspaper, radical BoBos blithely practice the worst sort of anti-development NIMBYism as property values skyrocket and it becomes harder and harder to find affordable housing within the town limits, delivering a financial windfall for their constituency as local landlords can now charge between $600 and $900 for a single room in town, The practice of several undergraduates sharing a nothing-special crap ass house two or more to a room to afford the rent is not unheard of.
The town’s motto might as well be: I’ve Got Mine, Now Fuck Off! Armies of tanned beefy forty-quelquechose dads in O’Neill t-shirts, wraparound sunglasses, and flip-flops join sleek, North Face-clad minimal make-up women with cute little Keen clogs in carting around their invariably brilliant, heavily sedated children from high-priced organic supermarket to sushi stand to art camp in SUVs and high-priced shiny European sedans with tinted windows. The city council dickers and dithers, debating whether to ban smoking in city parks, whether they should pass a resolution opposing the oppression of indigenous people in New Guinea, and how best to frustrate the efforts of the university to expand. The usual assortment of patchouli-scented oddballs and poorly controlled schizophrenics appear before the aldermen to denounce the CIA, the FBI, George Bush, and the University, even when what is being debated at any given moment is the width of sidewalks, garbage collection, or a redesign of the city logo.
Like many university towns, the town elders have made the fundamental error of thinking they can exist outside the bounds of the machine that has created the very conditions of their Valhalla-like existence. There is much hemming and hawing over quality of life (whose quality and whose life remain unanswered, for the answer is self-evident), with little care neither for the working poor of the town nor the painful contradictions of being, like a developing world economy, dependent on a single market. If the university were to disappear, the town would revert, in a twisted Cinderella act, to its original form: a cow town. Gone would be the bookstores, the funky little hippie shops, the hyper-expensive boutique supermarkets, the CD and scented candle emporia, the designer jewelry shops, and the ubiquitous cafes. The slackers and hanger-ons would have to meander elsewhere to pontificate all day long in the sun over a $4 soy latte and $3.75 vegan scone about how evil the university is. Maybe they could go to Palo Alto? I doubt they would be welcome in that particular self-congratulatory hothouse of teleological advancement. If the slackers of this town are disagreeable, the good people of Palo Alto are even worse, like boarding school with no vacations and compulsory buggery with no lube. Personally, I'd rather eat nails.
Don’t get me wrong. The University is, basically, The Man, evil incarnate (really), and will take the proverbial foot without so much as a “more, please,” given half the chance, and if it weren’t for the cadres of professional refuseniks who now equate any development with loss, with change, with transformation, and therefore resist it steadfastly, incoherently, in a knee-jerk fashion that speaks more to monosyllabic ideology, the soft smother of revealed truth, and a deep-seated selfishness than critical thinking, consensus, and negotiation. The effect of this resistance, on one hand, in a place as racist and classist as California, is to effectively close the gate to different people, those excluded whether by history or situation or money from the Golden Dream of the fragrant arbour, the garden filled with gladioli and roses, the chemical-free heirloom tomatoes, the hand-watered and trimmed bib lettuce.
The hopelessly symbiotic relationship of town and gown is what grates here. Years ago, greedy town fathers saw picnics with co-eds in twin sets and pearls and football tailgate parties in their eyes when they courted the university for a campus. In the interim century, the American understanding of higher education has shifted, and the local politics of the relationship between town and gown have correspondingly changed as well. After the sixties, for many conservative Americans, universities were no longer places readily identified with their world and interests. They were incubators of long hairs and homosexuals and Communists, and thus a heavy suspicion lay on their intentions, their transformations of our children.
Here however, there is the flip side of this socio-political coin: the former cow town has been so thoroughly transformed by the university that it no longer resembles the sleepy meat-eating American nowhere it had once been. The place is lousy with loud-mouthed and unpleasant lefty ideologues whose distrust of the university (as an aspect of the system, as opposed to the inculcator of Red, un-American values) is the strange twin to the hate spewed out on the airwaves and Fox News against intellectuals and academics. The approach may be different, but the result is the same, ironically enough. The fact that such resistance has generally paid off handsomely, and not only through escalating property values, for these refuseniks is just one of those little mysteries of how hegemony works.
Like most Americans, Californians now do not consider the relationship between materiality and existence, cause and effect, collaboration and consensus. They are all sui generis, profound creatures awaiting their moment in the spotlight, as the stage becomes increasingly crowded. The conflation of the words public and university, the responsibility and mission that entails to people not from here, not already with their perfect house, never seems to penetrate their defense of their utopia, their patch in the sun, and the public infrastructure and subsidies to support it. This is a battle happening all over the state and indeed the nation for the last forty years. It just seems more annoying here, where, in the words of Depeche Mode, the “grabbing hands grab all they can” but with a beatific, do-gooder lefty smile on the face as they fuck you over, tell you “no” or more often, “That’s not allowed,” and generally make life miserable in ways identical to their purported political opposites.
Then along comes the moments when you live the fantasy, and you can see, in the margins of your mind’s eye, the beginning of the delusion, the slippery slope of the insanity, fed by memory and longing: a long dip in the university pool under a clear blue sky, endless laps in the embryonic embrace of the water. The excellent Mexican food, along with real-life Mexican Americans, people who remind you of your family, people like you, from the striving Anglo-identified lawyer with the briefcase and power suit to the listless gangbangers in their cholo drag, all refusal and silence. A long hike through the local nature reserve, the spicy mace-like odour of the forest baked under the heat of the day intoxicating your senses. You pause, inhaling deeply, attempting to divine the different components of the scent: smiles, secrets, alienation, hunger, memory, joy, tears, disappointments. Isn’t that forested corner the place too where you once made out (interrupted by a passing jogger) with a boy you felt special about, him not so much? Robust tall and tanned Asian Americans, like the ones you went to school with, named Karen Takashima and Brad Cho and Margaret Chen and Steve Yamashita and Joanne Nguyen, cheerleaders and football players and cool slackers in heavy black eyeliner. Spending the day on a boondoggle, under the sun, in the fresh breeze, a long drive out of town into the country, past woods and fields and forest. A meander downtown, to eat at a Polynesian-Californian fusion restaurant that specialises in grilled fish, followed by a mochi ice cream cone eaten on the street, then visits to your favourite used bookstores for remaindered Edmund White and Andrew Holleran, home to brownies and tea and bed, under a duvet, the cool breeze outside.
Waking from this dream of memory and recognition, I am not blissful but feel hung over, as if given a dose of Burundanga. Where’s my wallet, my passport, my virginity?! The fantastical utopian possibilities of the perfect day, the insanity of the mimesis, the creeping pod person effect, cannot penetrate what I know to be true: a longer stay, a commitment to living this fantasy full-time, a delusional slip into the easy solipsism of the Californian quotidian, and I would go stark raving mad. Stark. Raving. Mad. Because California the idea(l), my California of memory and experience, is in retreat, bounded behind walls and fences, frozen in time. At least in this particular metaphysical part of California, and memory and familiarity is simply not enough to make up for the building asco of this Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
In two generations, Californians have gone from visionary to reactionary, forward-looking to finding comfort in idle pastiche, from planning moon shots to considering self-actualisation, whether at the gym or the shrink. This is a stereotype of course, but one with more than an ounce of truth in it. The worst part, of course, is the fact that Californians are lousy with self-aggrandising congratulation, like a cult believing their society of unequal and cruel squalour is the best of all possible worlds. In this sense, California is, as always, an allegory for the American drama, which is ultimately a tragedy. As a Californian in what is becoming increasingly a permanent exile, my home state is a nice place to visit, to wander among the ruins of one’s life, the mismatched remnants of memory, the scent of the lemon tree recalling a vision of my grandparents and their wonderful, robust garden, but I prefer to live someplace else, with winter, with fat people, with ugly people, with smokers, with children who are dullards and have no future, with despair, with all the imperfections of life, in another, different archipelago of American dystopia.