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Joan Didion: Where I Was From

The cost of controlling or rearranging the Sacramento, was largely borne, like the cost of controlling or rearranging many of other inconvenient features of California life, by the federal government.

This extreme reliance of California on federal money, so seemingly at odds with the emphasis on unfettered individualism that constitutes the local core belief, was a pattern set early on, and derived in part from the very individualism it would seem to belie…Charles Nordhoff complained of California in 1874 that “a speculative spirit invades even the farm house,” too often tempting its citizens “to go from one avocation to another, to do many things superficially, and to look for sudden fortunes by the chances of a shrewd venture, rather than be content to live by patient and continued labor.”


Yet the California community most deeply recalled by the author of this system was what he acknowledged to have been “a community of irresponsible strangers” (or in another reference, “a blind and stupid and homeless generation of selfish wanderers”), a community not of the “loyal” but of “men who have left homes and families, who have fled from before the word of the Lord, and have sought safety from their old vexatious duties in a golden paradise.”


Almost a century later (1960), Cary McWilliams…remarked on the almost total absence of conventional “rural” life in California, which would have been, if it were a country, the world’s seventh-largest agricultural producer. “The large shipper-growers ‘farm by phone’ from headquarters in San Francisco or Los Angeles. Many of them travel, nowadays, exclusively by plane in visiting their various ‘operations’…Their relationship to the land is as casual as that of the migratory workers they employ.” To live as farmers would have been, for the acquisitors of these operations, a bewileringly alien concept, since their holdings were about something else altogether: they were temporary chips in the game of capital formation.

p 55

…At the time the Hollister ranch was sold, in the late 1960s…roughly two and a half million acres of California still belonged to Southern Pacific. Almost half a million acres belongs to the Shasta Forest Company. A third of a million acres belonged to Tenneco, another third of a million each belonged to the Tejon Ranch Company, Standard Oil, and Boise Cascade…

All played a role in determining which of California’s possibilities would be realized and which limited.

p 61

Carey Mcwilliams…characterized the pervasive local hostility towards Asians as “a social and psychic necessity of the situation,” the “negative device” by which a state made up of newly arrived strangers had been able to acheive the illusion of a cohesive community joined against the menace of the foreign born.


Their rightful place in the California fable validated, Saxon and Billy settle in, determined to redeem the birthright of the “old stock” through the practice of scientific agronomy, which London himself imagined that he and his second wife, the woman he called his “Mate-Woman”, Charmian Kittredge, were perfecting on their own Sonoma ranch. London’s letters from this period speak of “making the dead soil live again,” of leaving the land “better for my having been,” of unremitting industry, transcendent husbandry. “No picayune methods for me,” he wrote. “When I go in silence, I want to know that I left behind me a plot of land which, after the pitiful failures of others, I have made productive…Can’t you see? Oh, try to see!- In the solution of great economic problems of the present age, I see a return to the soil.”

This was another confusion. His crops failed. His Wolf House, built to last a thousand years, burned to the ground before he and the Mate-Woman…could move in. His health was gone. He battled depression. He battled alcoholism. At one point in 1913, the year Wolf House was completed and burned, he had only three dollars and forty-six cents left in the bank…Jack London had died, at forty, of uremic poisoning and one final, fatal, dose of the morphine prescribed to calm his renal colic. In the last novel he was allowed to write…he had allowed his protagonist and author-surrogate to ask these questions, a flash of the endemic empty in a work that is otherwise a fantasy of worldly and social success: “Why? What for? What’s it worth? What’s it all about?”


The transformation of the Bohemian Club from a lively if frivolous gathering of local free spirits to a nexus of the nation’s corporate and political interests in many ways mirrored the larger transformation, that of California itself from what it had been, or what its citizens preferred to believe that it had been, to what it is now, an entirely dependent colony of the the invisible empire in which those corporate and political interests are now joined.

This was the same “average Californian” who, by the year…1886, had already sold half the state to Southern Pacific and was in the process of mortgaging the rest to the federal government. For most of the next hundred years, kept aloft first by oil and then by World War Two and finally by Cold War and the largesse of the owners and managers who would arrive in Gulfstreams for the annual encampment at Bohemian Grove, that average Californian had seen his “easiest failing” yield only blue skies.

p87, p90

By the year 2000, according to The Los Angeles Times, some hundred Orange County motels were inhabited almost exclusively by the working poor, people who made, say, $280 a week sanding airplane parts, or $7 an hour at Disney’s “California Adventure” park. “A land celebrating the richness and diversity of California, its natural resources, and the pioneering spirit of its people,” the web site for “California Adventure” read. Joan Irvine Smith told Art in California about the collection she bought with the proceeds of looking exclusively, and to a famous degree, forward. “I can see California as it was and as we will never see it again.” Here is one extreme example of the conundrum that to one degree or another confronts any Californian who profited from the boom years: if we could still see California as it was, how many of us could now afford to see it?


John Todd, a resident of Lakewood since its beginning and later its city attorney, wrote of the planning stage. “Everything about this entire project was perfect,” Mark Taper said in 1969 when he sat down with city officials to work up a local history. “Things happened that may never happen again.”

What he meant, of course, was the perfect synergy of time and place, the seamless confluence of World War II and the Korean War and the G.I. Bill and the defense contracts that began to flood Southern California as the Cold War set in. Here on this raw acreage on the flood plain between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers was where two powerfully conceived national interests, that of keeping the economic engine running and that of creating an enlarged middle or consumer class, could be seen to converge.


“Naively, you could say that Lakewood was the American dream made affordable for a generation of industrial workers who in the preceding generations could never aspire to that kind of ownership,” he said one morning when we were talking about the way the place was developed…”They worked for Hughes, they worked for Douglas, and they worked at the naval station and shipyard in Long Beach. They worked, in other words, at all the places that exemplified the bright future that California was supposed to be.”


According to a June 1993 report on aerospace unemployment prepared by researchers at the UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Planning, half the California aerospace workers laid of in 1989 were, two years later, either still unemployed or no longer living in California. Most of those who did find jobs had ended up in lower-income service jobs; only seventeen percent had gone back to work in the aerospace industry at figures approaching their original salaries. Of those laid off in 1991 and 1992, only sixteen percent, a year later, had found jobs of any kind.

“We’re developing good citizens,” Mark Taper had said about Lakewood in 1969. “Enthusiastic owners of property. Owners of a piece of their country-a stake in the land.” This was a sturdy but finally unsupportable ambition, sustained for forty years by good times and the good will of the federal government.

p 109-110

“He knew his suburb’s first 17,500 houses had been built in less than three years. He knew what this must have cost, but he did not care.

The houses still worked.

He thought of them as middle class even though 1,100-square-foot tract houses on streets meeting at right angles are not middle class at all.

Middle-class houses are the homes of people who would not live here.”

This is in fact the tacit dissonance at the center of every moment in Lakewood, which is why the average day there raises, for the visitor, so many and such vertiginous questions.

What does it cost to create and maintain an artificial ownership class?

Who pays?

Who benefits?

What happens when that class stops being useful?

What doe it mean to drop back below the line?

What does it cost to hang on above it, how do you behave, what do you say, what are the pitons you drive into the granite?


Lakewood exists because at given time in a different economy it had seemed an efficient idea to provide population density for the mall and a labor pool for the Douglas plant. There are a lot of towns like Lakewood in California. They were California’s mill towns, breeder towns for the boom. When times were good and there was money to spread around, these were the towns that proved Marx wrong, that managed to increase the proletariat and simultaneously, by calling it middle class, co-opt it.


…Yet there was in Run River something that was not true, a warp, a persistent suggestion that these changes brought about by World War Two had in some way been resisted by “true” Californians. Had not any such resistance been confined to the retrospect? Were not “changes” and “boom years” what the California experience had been about since the first American settlement? Were we still not willing to traffic our own history to get what the railroad could bring us?


Californians of more programmatic mind for many years presented these postwar changes as positive, the very genius of the place: it was conventional to mention the freeway system, the aerospace industry, the University of California Master Plan, Silicon Valley, the massive rearrangement of the water that got funded when Pat Brown was governor, the entire famous package, the celebrated promise that California was committed to creating and educating an apparently infinitely expandable middle class. The more recent programmatic attitude was to construe the same changes as negative, false promises: the freeways had encouraged sprawl, the aerospace industry had gone awry, the University of California had lost faculty and classrooms to budget cuts, Silicon Valley had put housing beyond the means of non-tech California, and most of the state was still short water.


During World War Two and the immediately postwar years, 1940 to 1950, the population of California did in fact increase 53 percent. During the next ten years, 1950 to 1960, the population of California did in fact increase 49 percent.

Yet such growth was in no way unprecedented. Nor, in a state that had seen its population increase in the first ten years of statehood by 245 percent, was it even remarkable…There had been, then, from the beginning, these obliterating increases, rates of growth that systematically erased freshly laid traces of custom and community, and it was from such erasures that many California confusions would derive.

p 172-173

“When we all went to the universities, when we abandoned what made us good and embraced what made us comfortable and secure, we lost something essential, knew we lost it and yet chose to lose…Material bounty and freedom are so much stronger incentives than sacrifice and character.” – Victor Davis Hanson

Notice, too, that the “destruction” of the San Joaquin Valley, as he sees it, began at the point when the small family farms on the east side of the Valley (the arid west side of the Valley, the part described by William Henry Brewer in the 1960s as a “plain of absolute desolation,” belonged to corporate growers) began giving way first to industrial parks and subdivisions and then to strip malls and meth labs.

There is a further possible mirage here: the San Joaquin Valley’s “beautiful century” could have seemed, to those actually living it, perhaps not entirely golden: “Here, in this corner of a great nation, here in this valley of the West, far from the great centers, isolated, remote, lost, the great iron hand crushes from us, crushes liberty and the pursuit of happiness from us”…That was Frank Norris, writing in The Octopus, on the slaughter that took place in 1880 at Mussel Slough, now Lucerne…just fifteen miles from Selma, the site of the farmhouse in which six generations of Victor Davis Hanson’s family have lived.


This was by no means to say that I believed all or even most Californians to be rich, only to suggest that the fact of having no money seemed to me to lack, in California, the immutable gravity that characterized the condition elsewhere.

p 182

Since the building and staffing of new prisons were major reasons why California no longer felt rich enough to adequately fund its education system, this second fact initially presented itself as an even deeper affront than the first, evidence that a “new” California had finally and fatally out the old. Then I remembered, then I realized.

We are seeing nothing “new” here.

We are seeing one more version of making our deal with the Southern Pacific.

Were are seeing one more version of making our bed with the federal government.

We are seeing one more enthusiastic fall into a familiar California error, that of selling the future of the place we lived to the highest bidder, which was in this instance the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

p 183-184

Don Novey is the former guard at Folsom State Prison who became in 1980 the president of the California Correctional Peace Offices Association…”If Don Novey ran the contractor’s union,” a Republican strategist told the Times, “there’d be a bridge over every puddle in the state.”…The prison guards were the political muscle behind the 1994 “three strikes” legislation and initiative, the act that mandated a sentence of 25 years for any third felony conviction, even for crimes as minor as growing a marijuana plant on a windowsill or shoplifting a bottle of Ripple. The prison guards were the political muscle that had by the year 2000 made the California corrections system, with thirty-three penitentiaries and 162,000 inmates, the largest in the western hemisphere.

p 184

It was also 1994 when standardized testing reading skills among California fourth-graders placed them last in the nation, below Mississippi, tied only with Louisiana. It was 1995 when, for the the first time, California spent more on its prisons than on its two university systems, the ten campuses of the University of California and the twenty-four campuses of California State University.

Through most of my life I would have interpreted the growth of the prison system and the diminution of the commitment to public education as evidence of how California had “changed.” Only recently did I come to see them as the opposite, evidence of how California had “not changed,” and to understand “change” itself as one of the culture’s most enduring misunderstandings about itself.

p 187

From the 1870s to the 1920s…California had a higher rate of commitment for insanity than any other state in the nation, a disproportion most reasonably explained…”by the zeal with which California state officials sought to locate, detain, and treat not only those considered ‘mentally ill,’ but also a wide variety of other deviants- including, as state hospital physicians put it, ‘imbeciles, dotards, idiots, drunkards, simpletons, fools,’ and ‘the aged, the vagabond, the helpless.'”

In 1870, the federal census classified one in every 489 Californians as insane. By 1880, the rate had reached 260 and the asylums had passed capacity, the notion of sterilizing inmates gained currency. the idea being that a certain number could then be released without danger of reproducing.

What was arresting in this pattern of commitment was the extent to which it diverged from the California sense of itself as loose, less socially rigid than the rest of the country, more adaptable, more tolerant of difference. When Fox analyzed the San Francisco commitment records for the years 1906 to 1929, he found that the majority of those hospitalized, fifty-nine percent, had been committed not because they were violent, not because they presented a thread to others or themselves, but simply because they had been reported, sometimes by a police officer but often by a neighbor or relative, to exhibit “odd or peculiar behavior.”


“Are we on the right road,” my mother had asked again and again as we drove up 101. I had repeatedly assured here that we were, at last pointing out an overhead sign: 101 North.

“Then where did it all go,” she had asked.

She meant where did Gilroy go, where was the Milias hotel, where could my father eat short ribs now. She meant where did San Juan Bautista go, why was it no longer so sweetly remote as it had been on the day of my wedding there in 1964. She meant where had San Benito and Santa Clara Counties gone as she remembered them, the coastal hills north of Salinas, the cattle grazing, the familiar open vista that had been relentlessly replace (during the year, two years, three, the blink of the eye during which she had been caring for my father) by mile after mile of pastel subdivisions and labyrinthine exits and entrances to freeways that had not previously existed.

For some miles she was silent.

California had become, she said then, “all San Jose.”


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“Barn Crash” – A conversation between Gus Van Sant and Ryan McGinley, 2012

RM: I do yoga almost every day. I started doing it because I felt like I needed balance in my life. I was working so much and burning the candle at both ends. I was really struggling, so I started doing yoga, and it definitely helps but I think I’d rather be working. I force myself to do it. There’s a point I usually get to at night–you can work, say, eight hours a day, from noon to 8 PM, and then everyone leaves and then from 8 PM to 2 AM, those next six hours are so much more important than the first eight hours that you worked. It’s when everything manifests and you can get so much done and ideas become so much clearer. I try to do it but I start going crazy if I do it too long, which is why I started exercising.

 I feel like there’s a similarity in the way we both work. We both work with a sense of contingency, we plan everything the way we want it, but we plan it to go wrong. Do you feel like you work that way?

GVS: Yeah, the happy accidents happen. You learn that. You realize the best parts are the things that go wrong. Then you try and plan the wrong things with control, so it’s a combination.

RM: Yeah. It’s nice.

GVS: So… what camera do you use?

RM: Haha. For the photos in this book, I used a Leica R8, a Canon 5D, and a Yashica T4.

GVS: What kind of film do you use?

RM: Kodak Portra or Kodak Gold. Usually Portra, there’s the VC, which is vivid color and it gives you really nice saturated colors.

RM: People ask me all the time, “When are you gonna make a movie?” But I don’t know. I would love to make a film but I’m definitely nervous about. I guess its one of those things that I just have to do. There’s a quote of yours that I read when I was in college: “Making movies isn’t for dreamers, it’s for doers.”

GVS: I’m sure I never said that.

RM: You did! I remember.

GVS: That sounds like a motivational quote.

RM: It was very motivational.

GVS: Oh, I know what I meant. I think what I was talking about was that I sat around for years with friends, I spent a lot of time dreaming. It always seemed to be easier and more fun, like you sit in a coffee shop with some friends and you can spend hours sitting there, talking about what you were going to do. And the reason we were never doing what we said we were going to do was because they were film projects that needed like $100,000 and we could never find $100,000, so the only thing left for us to do was to share our plans and hang out so we weren’t alone sharing our plans. And just bullshit for hours on end. It was like a little think tank but eventually you do have to venture out of that think tank and actually make something.

RM: Yeah, sometimes I’ll find myself making things just for the sake of making things. I feel like half the battle is arriving and being there and you have this idea and whatever happens with that, at least for my work it can go in so many different directions. Whatever happens, it always goes somewhere else. It never ends up where I started with the original idea. Which I think is the fun part. We’ll have a location and I’ll think its great and I’ll turn around to face another direction and say, “Oh, this is way better.”

GVS: Right.

RM: It’s exciting for me to find that and then just work through it. My work is about repetition–to make a photograph, it’s about doing a scene, a repetitious act until people can’t do it anymore, until they’re tired.

RM: But now, the way that I make photographs is the same way that I would film someone doing a run. It’s like you ollie off something, you kickflip it, you tailslide a curb or ledge, you try and get these moments in a row, a good run. It’s the same thing with photography. It’s like this repetitious act of doing these activities to find that one moment that works, where it’s balanced, the colors are beautiful, the way that the light is hitting the person is really nice, it feels poetic, and it feels real. So when you’re looking through a book or exhibition, it creates a narrative and then you start to make up your own stories.

RM: Do you think that you have to be a workaholic to be a successful artist?

GVS: No.

RM: No? Do you know people who aren’t?

GVS: I mean, I think that it helps.

RM: I think that you have to be extremely obsessed with certain things and it’s almost therapeutic–that you have to make the work to get through those obsessions. I feel like everyone who I respect as an artist kind of can’t stop working.

GVS: Yeah, I think that you’re right, it’s very uncommon for somebody who isn’t preoccupied with their work to be in the forefront.

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New York Magazine, Aug 2013: The Blip

The first industrial revolution began in 1750 or so in the north of England.

The second industrial revolution began in 1870 mostly in the United States.

Gordon has two predictions to offer.

1) For at least the next fifteen years or so, Gordon argues, our economy will grow at less than half the rate it has averaged since the late-nineteenth century because a set of structural headwinds that Gordon believes will be even more severe than most other economists do: the aging of the American population; the stagnation in educational achievement; the fiscal tightening to fix our public and private debt; the costs of health care and energy; the pressures of globalization and growing inequality.

2) The forces of the second industrial revolution, he believes, were so powerful and so unique that they will not be repeated.

The consequences of that breakthrough took a century to be fully realized, and as the internal combustion engine gave rise to the car and eventually the airplane, and electricity to radio and the telephone and then mass media, they came to rearrange social forces and transform everyday lives. Mechanized farm equipment permitted people to leave rural areas and move to cities. Electrical appliances allowed women of all social classes to leave behind housework for more fulfilling and productive jobs. Air-conditioning moved work indoors. The introduction of public sewers and sanitation reduced illness and infant mortality, improving health and extending lives. The car, mass media, and commercial aircraft led to a liberation from the narrow confines of geography and an introduction to a far broader and richer world. Education beyond high school was made accessible, in the aftermath of World War II, to the middle and working classes. These are all consequences of the second industrial revolution, and it is hard to image how these improvements might be extended.

There is a whole set of manners, which we have come to think of as part of our national identity, that depends upon this expectation that things will always get better: Our laissez-faire-ism; our can-do-ism; the optimistic cast of our religiosity, which persisted even when other Western nations turned towards atheism; our cult of the individual. We think of the darkening social turn that happened around 1972 as having something to do with the energy of the sixties collapsing in on themselves, but in Gordon’s description something more mechanistic was happening. “The second industrial revolution had run its course,” he says, and so, in many ways, had its social implications.

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Haruki Murakami in the Paris Review


Those two factors—a straightforward, easy-to-follow narrative voice paired with an often bewildering plot—is that a conscious choice?


No, it’s not. When I start to write, I don’t have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come. I don’t choose what kind of story it is or what’s going to happen. I just wait. Norwegian Wood is a different thing, because I decided to write in a realistic style. But basically, I cannot choose.



At what age did you become a writer? Was it a surprise to you?


When I was twenty-nine years old. Oh yes, it was a surprise. But I got used to it instantly.


Instantly? From the first day of writing you felt comfortable?


I started writing at the kitchen table after midnight. It took ten months to finish that first book; I sent it to a publisher and I got some kind of prize, so it was like a dream—I was surprised to find it happening. But after a moment, I thought, Yes, it’s happened and I’m a writer; why not? It’s that simple.


To this day, you have no friends who are writers?


No. I don’t think so.


Is there no one you show your work to when it’s in progress?





Are there people currently writing in Japan whose books you read and enjoy?


Yes, some of them. Ryu Murakami. Banana Yoshimoto—some of her books I like. But I don’t do any reviews or critiques; I don’t want to be involved in that.


Why not?


I think that my job is to observe people and the world, and not to judge them. I always hope to position myself away from so-called conclusions. I would like to leave everything wide open to all the possibilities in the world.

I prefer translating to criticism, because you are hardly required to judge anything when you translate. Line by line, I just let my favorite work pass through my body and my mind. We need critiques in this world, for sure, but it’s just not my job.



Is there also a sense of not wanting to explain your books, in the way a dream loses its power when it comes under analysis?


The good thing about writing books is that you can dream while you are awake. If it’s a real dream, you cannot control it. When writing the book, you are awake; you can choose the time, the length, everything. I write for four or five hours in the morning and when the time comes, I stop. I can continue the next day. If it’s a real dream, you can’t do that.



Is that one of the main purposes of revision, then—to take what you’ve learned from the end of the first draft and rework the earlier sections to give a certain feeling of inevitability?


That’s right. The first draft is messy; I have to revise and revise.


How many drafts do you generally go through?


Four or five. I spend six months writing the first draft and then spend seven or eight months rewriting.


That’s pretty fast.


I’m a hard worker. I concentrate on my work very hard. So, you know, it’s easy. And I don’t do anything but write my fiction when I write.


How is your typical workday structured?


When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.



Disappointment as a rite of passage?


That’s right. Experience itself is meaning. The protagonist has changed in the course of his experiences—that’s the main thing. Not what he found, but how he changed.



Do you go to the movies often?


Oh, yes. All the time. My favorite director is from Finland—Aki Kaurismäki. Every one of his movies I liked. He’s way out of the ordinary.



Is that a way of saying that although you have no idea what is going to happen next as you write, another part of you knows exactly what’s coming?


Unconsciously, I guess. When I’m absorbed in writing, I know what the author is feeling and I know what the reader is feeling. That’s good—it gives my writing speed. Because I want to know what happens next as much as the reader does. But also you have to stop the current sometimes. If it gets too fast, people get tired and bored. You have to make them stop at a certain point.


And how do you do that?


I just feel it. I know it’s time to stop.



You mentioned Ryu Murakami earlier. He seems to have a very different agenda as a writer.


My style is kind of postmodern; his is more mainstream. But when I read Coin Locker Babies for the first time, I was shocked; I decided I would like to write that kind of powerful novel. Then I started to write A Wild Sheep Chase. So it’s a kind of rivalry.


Are you friends?


We’ve had a good relationship. We are not enemies, at least. He has a very natural, powerful talent. It’s as if he has an oil well just beneath the surface. But in my case, my oil was so deep that I had to dig and dig and dig. It was real toil. And it took time to get there. But once I got there, I was strong and confident. My life was systematized. It was good to be digging all the way.


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Tony Karr in Stereophonic Sound: Volume 4

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