to seek redemption in the American West

In 92109 between Fanuel and the Pacific, every third car bears a license plate that is not Californian. These cars dawdle in overexpansive apartment driveways, rub up against the curb, proclaiming “Wisconsin,” “Michigan,” “New York,” “Massachusetts,” “Arizona,” “Maryland.” Just when you think all these people wanted was to pursue a carefree beach life, you see Florida.

The other delegates to the YMCA Youth Conference on National Affairs (CONA), representing about 35 states in any given year, perennially granted us “popular kid” status, taking for granted our inherent wisdom, cool-ness, beauty, and superiority. This, of course, wasn’t hampered by the fact that California’s delegates did tend to be the best prepared, substantively, of the bunch, but even CONA rookies were impressed by our state’s mythos before their friends had  told them of our reputation for excellence in nerddom. Similarly, when five of us Bay girls went to Colorado for another YMCA leadership retreat that was nearly completely populated by Texans, even they immediately assumed we were superlative by mere virtue of our home state. (Did I mention they were TEXANS? Texans. Texans!) They regaled me with requests for anecdotes of my quintessentially California life, in that moment wanting nothing more than to soak in everything I could possibly share, so that they, too, could one day manifest their dreams in California.

My father moved to Palos Verdes around 1960, settling into a house embedded in a hilly cliff that overlooks Malaga Cove. Only the driveways are visible from the snaking main road (“Via del Monte” — of course), but from the Pacific all you will see is burnt orange and forest green, terra cotta roofs sandwiching ocean-fed desert foliage. Back up close, you see animals roaming up and down the hillside, through the middle of the street, and they’re motherfucking peacocks. Every morning, the elementary school calls to tell you your daughter’s pet ducks are on the playground again, so you clamber down the hillside to fetch them before you shrug into your jacket and car and slip through the canyons to work.

Even I cave to the Palos Verdes Peninsula’s charms. What a miracle it must have been for this orphan to mine coal in Pennsylvania, fall short in New Haven, walk tall in Norman, solicit ten-gallon-hats in Dallas, find a girl in Chicago, construct the two-child family in Bloomfield Hills, and to finally throw off his past in the fresh Pacific air.

“Kari,” he pressed jovially, “there is a phenomenon called the Westward Tilt. At some point, the country slanted left, and everybody who didn’t have firm roots in the East toppled to California. There was no reason for us to stay, and we could create a world for ourselves here. The East didn’t have any place for a man like me.”

Does the redemptive power of the American West still hold sway? The Pacific Beach license plates suggest yes, but their transient nature and quick return home must matter somewhat, too. Clearly, this myth still tugs at the heartstrings, but do people give up on it more quickly than they used to, and, if so, why? The crushing realization that a colder ocean doesn’t render someone fresh? The shock of rent thrice that in Ohio? The recession? The internet? Rebecca Black?

California is a wonderful place where innovative implementation and creative self-destruction go hand-in-hand, where redwoods meet ocean, picking poppies is illegal, the legislature is explosively impotent, and you can surf Windansea in the morning and ski Big Bear that afternoon. Every metropolitan area has its own burrito, gold-panning still is as fruitful as abalone-diving, and the only thing that can quiet the SoCal v. NorCal debate is that AllCal trumps everyone else. But I can’t help but feel a little robbed that I don’t have my own mythic California. Where do we natives go when we need to start over?

Speaking in terms of narrative and myth, of course, the East has appeal for California’s non-tech nerdiest, but only in the professional sense; the East is where you go to prove your mettle, not to create a new self. The midwest, maybe, if you’ve always wanted to marry a husky husker. Atlanta, if you’re African-American. Hawaii could be cool, but as an island, it might just be a little too crazy. Probably Canada. But, as Americans (even if we continually discuss secession), we’d probably never quite be willing to cut that tie.

So, Alabama CONA delegates and Texas Y leaders, don’t be too jealous of us Californians. We may surf to school, but we got gypped.  You — you get to dream of, and maybe even build, an entire life anew.

 

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