Publisher's Note — April 17, 2014, 12:12 pm

More Irksome Than a California Quake

The taming of a once-wild state

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on April 17, 2014.

California clichés get on my nerves — cutting edge; dream factory; innovative business culture — so when the time came to visit family and friends in Los Angeles and San Francisco last month I was prepared to be annoyed.

But I wasn’t prepared for the earthquake that shook our Santa Monica hotel room in the early morning of St. Patrick’s Day — that was altogether too real and scary. My wife compared it to the impact of a jet plane landing hard on a runway, but longer lasting.

I suppose the California culture of denial is itself a cliché, but the next day’s Los Angeles Times treated the event very seriously with its double-entendre front-page headline: “4.4 quake a wake-up call on L.A. faults.” According to the paper, the earthquake occurred on a “little-noticed fault deep under the Santa Monica Mountains,” rather than on the more famous subterranean San Andreas Fault.

I offer my deepest apologies for both the cliché and the pun, but perhaps the fault with Los Angeles lies deeper.

Thanks in part to movies like Chinatown, we know that settling millions of people in a desert climate on the shores of the Pacific Ocean is an insult to nature, and that only because of political corruption and “stolen” water from up north are Southern Californians able to survive.

Aside from earthquakes, the deadliest current threat to Los Angeles, and to most of the Southwestern United States, is severe drought, so it’s pertinent to ask what hubris permits Angelenos to so blithely continue their irrational ways of life.

One answer is that it rained for a couple of days before the Academy Awards ceremony, which must have been reassuring to the Hollywood establishment. Another answer might be that the concrete-confined Los Angeles “River” runs through CBS Television’s Studio City complex, where we visited the former set of Seinfeld.

Between the continuously rushing water and the realistic New York City streetscape, you might find yourself believing you’re not living in a West Coast desert at all.

Interestingly, our family preferred the informal tour of the CBS lot to the formal guided tour of nearby Warner Brothers in Burbank. For the garrulous guide at Warner, the Harry Potter movies commanded pride of place in the studio museum, but my daughters are not big fans of J. K. Rowling’s books or their cinematic spinoffs.

The Holy Grail was revealed only at the last stop, when the guide brought us to the perfectly preserved set of Friends. Our fellow tourists were suitably impressed, each one posing for a photograph on the couch of the show’s fictional café. When we revealed that no member of our immediate family had ever seen an episode, our guide seemed genuinely flabbergasted — he had met maybe four other people out of 4,000 visitors who could make the same claim.

Later on, at CBS, I insisted that we be photographed as a family in front of the modest suburban set of My Three Sons, the 1960s series starring Fred MacMurray as a widowed father. That impressed me.

Having suffered no earthquake aftershocks, we lit out for San Francisco on the coast highway in a sedan, not the SUV suggested by the Hertz agent. Thank God I didn’t listen to him. The first part of the journey, through Malibu and Santa Barbara, was lovely, easy driving. We skipped Hearst Castle (I’m satisfied with Orson Welles’s imaginary version in Citizen Kane), opting instead for the beach and surf across the road and a visit to the odd little general store that also houses the Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room and post office in Old San Simeon.

However, as we headed north on Route 1 into the tenth of what seemed like a hundred hairpin turns on the approach to Big Sur, I began to wonder what had possessed the rental agent to suggest a big car, and why everyone we asked in Los Angeles had downplayed the difficulty of the drive.

“No worries” is what Californians say instead of “No problem,” and I was becoming increasingly worried as one of my daughters began to complain of carsickness. Yes, it’s better to be driving north on the mountain side of the road, but I had to be very careful not to let my eyes wander.

The scenery is spectacular all right, but it’s also mercilessly steep, rugged and unfriendly in a way that’s radically different from the East Coast. A bathroom break at Nepenthe, the restaurant on the site of a cabin bought on a whim by Orson Welles and wife Rita Hayworth in 1944, saved the day.

I had heard about the tension in San Francisco between the old-timers and the new money from Silicon Valley, but I’m a born skeptic. I was sure that Baghdad by the Bay (as Herb Caen dubbed this most magnificent of cities) was immune from the kind of gentrification that has made Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn so dull and homogenous.

But after four days my wife and I agreed with the old-timers: the City by the Bay, home to so much of American bohemia, has lost its charm. The Mission neighborhood, once thoroughly Mexican, is giving way to boutiques and restaurants just like the upscale ones on Fillmore Street in spirit.

I’m biased because my older daughter suffered a serious allergic reaction in a trendy café called The Grove and had to be hospitalized overnight, but I couldn’t help but be irritated by the retail uniformity of Lower Pacific Heights. The hardest thing, though, was to enter a sanitized Tosca Café in North Beach, once a romantic, reckless spot where I asked my wife to marry me, and where I met the great journalist Warren Hinckle for the first time, along with other, more frightening eccentrics like the pornographer Artie Mitchell. The Tosca today, well, you could find a version of it in New York.

I did see what might well have been drunken eccentrics — in the impeccably organized and remarkably friendly UCSF hospital emergency room — but I miss the old San Francisco.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note December 10, 2018, 3:23 pm

A New Day?

“The Democratic Party is best understood as an assemblage of baronies, the three most important of which—California, New York, and Illinois—dole out the most patronage and political favors in return for filling the party’s coffers and guaranteeing the reelection of its most cherished adherents.”

Publisher's Note November 3, 2018, 12:02 am

All Bets Are Off

“I recommend neither the assertions of journalists and pollsters nor big headlines about terror attacks, murders, or caravans of desperate people as a basis for predicting the outcome of the midterm elections.”

Publisher's Note October 9, 2018, 11:53 am

Trading on Resentment

“The ‘free trade’ policies championed by US leaders from Reagan to Obama, most definitely including the Clintons, have produced many victims.”

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2019

Machine Politics

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Polar Light

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump Is a Good President

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Resistances

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Long Shot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Machine Politics·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” Ronald Reagan said in 1989. He was speaking to a thousand British notables in London’s historic Guildhall, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan proclaimed that the world was on the precipice of “a new era in human history,” one that would bring “peace and freedom for all.” Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Long Shot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ihave had many names, but as a sniper I went by Azad, which means “free” or “freedom” in Kurdish. I had been fighting for sixteen months in Kurdish territory in northern Syria when in April 2015 I was asked to leave my position on the eastern front, close to the Turkish border, and join an advance on our southwestern one. Eight months earlier, we had been down to our last few hundred yards, and, outnumbered five to one, had made a last stand in Kobanî. In January, after more than four months of fighting street-to-street and room-by-room, we recaptured the town and reversed what was, until then, an unstoppable jihadi tide. In the battles since, we had pushed ­ISIS far enough in every direction that crossing our territory was no longer a short dash through the streets but a five-hour drive across open country. As we set out to the north, I could make out the snowy peaks in southern Turkey where they say Noah once beached his ark. Below them, rolling toward us, were the wide, grassy valleys and pine forests of Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris where our people have lived for twelve thousand years.

The story of my people is filled with bitter ironies. The Kurds are one of the world’s oldest peoples and, as pioneers of agriculture, were once among its most advanced. Though the rest of the world now largely overlooks that it was Kurds who were among the first to create a civilization, the evidence is there. In 1995, German archaeologists began excavating a temple at Göbekli Tepe in northern Kurdistan. They found a structure flanked by stone pillars carved with bulls, foxes, and cranes, which they dated to around 10,000 bce. At the end of the last Ice Age, and seven thousand years before the erection of Stonehenge or the pyramids at Giza, my ancestors were living together as shamans, artists, farmers, and engineers.

Fighters of the YJA-STAR, the women’s force in the PKK, Sinjar, Iraq, November 2015 (detail)
Article
Polar Light·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To get oriented here is difficult. The light is flat because the sky is overcast. The sun’s weak rays create only a few anemic shadows by which to judge scale and distance. Far-off objects like mountain peaks have crisp edges because the atmosphere itself is as transparent as first-water diamonds, but the mountains are not nearly as close as they seem. It’s about negative-twelve degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind is relatively calm, moving over the snow distractedly, like an animal scampering.

[caption id="attachment_271890" align="aligncenter" width="690"]True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images. True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.[/caption]

Four of the six people living here are in their tents now, next to their cookstoves, two by two, warming up and preparing their suppers. I’m the fifth of the group, almost motionless at the moment, a hundred yards south of the tent cluster, kneeling on a patch of bluish ice in the midst of a great expanse of white. I’m trying to discern a small object entombed there a few inches below the surface. Against the porcelain whites of this gently sloping landscape, I must appear starkly apparent in my cobalt blue parka and wind pants. I shift slowly right and left, lean slightly forward, then settle back, trying to get the fluxless sunlight to reveal more of the shape and texture of the object.

A multiple-exposure photograph (detail) taken every hour from 1:30 pm on December 8, 1965, to 10:10 am on December 9, 1965, showing the sun in its orbit above the South Pole, Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station © Georg Gerster/Panos Pictures
Article
Donald Trump Is a Good President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In all sincerity, I like Americans a lot; I’ve met many lovely people in the United States, and I empathize with the shame many Americans (and not only “New York intellectuals”) feel at having such an appalling clown for a leader.

However, I have to ask—and I know what I’m requesting isn’t easy for you—that you consider things for a moment from a non-American point of view. I don’t mean “from a French point of view,” which would be asking too much; let’s say, “from the point of view of the rest of the world.”On the numerous occasions when I’ve been questioned about Donald Trump’s election, I’ve replied that I don’t give a shit. France isn’t Wyoming or Arkansas. France is an independent country, more or less, and will become totally independent once again when the European Union is dissolved (the sooner, the better).

Illustration (detail) by Ricardo Martínez
Article
Resistances·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The prepositions you’re most likely to encounter after the title of a poem are “for” or “to” and sometimes “after”—“for my daughter”; “to Bobby”; “after Pound”; etc. They signify dedication, address, homage, imitation. In the recent poems of Fred Moten, we encounter “with,” a preposition that denotes accompaniment. The little difference makes a big difference, emphasizing collaboration over the economy of the gift, suggesting that the poet and his company are fellow travelers, in the same time zone, alongside each other in the present tense of composition. (Given Moten’s acclaimed critical work on jazz, the “with” is immediately evocative of musical performance, e.g., “Miles Davis with Sonny Rollins.”) Not all “withs” are the same—there is a different intimacy in the poem “fifty little springs,” which is “with aviva,” Moten’s wife’s Hebrew name (which means springtime), than there is in “resistances,” which is “with” a critic and an artist, interlocutors of Moten’s. (The poem “13. southern pear trees” has no preposition after the title, but is excerpted from another responding to the work of Zoe Leonard, and so is still a work of fellowship.) The scale of that “with” can be small (“with aviva, as if we were all alone”) or vast (“with everybody we don’t know”), but either way the poem becomes an instance of alongsidedness instead of belatedness; the poems request, with that subtle prepositional shift, that we think of ourselves as participants in the production of meaning and not mere recipients of someone else’s eloquence.

“Untitled,” 1989, by Zoe Leonard © Zoe Leonard (detail)

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:

10

French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

Migrant children were teargassed; carbon dioxide levels have reached three to five million year high; missionary killed by remote tribe

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today