Sunday, October 19, 2008
SoCal is so-o-o Cal
Last week's base of operations for Mission: Vacation was San Diego. This account of the visit has no particular point to make; it's just a few observations, which might be interesting if such things interest you.
San Diego fits Southern California's traditional image much more than Los Angeles. (And Southern California generates most of the clichés about California, although the state is quite different north of the Bay Area, and the Central Valley is in another galaxy.) L.A. pretends, or used to, that it is a laid-back place of fantasy and leisure, but it has never seemed so to me. It's as charged-up and edgy as New York. Much of San Diego (hereafter abbreviated S.D., as the locals do) looks like L.A., especially in residential neighborhoods, but the vibe is different. I can't say what goes on under the surface, but San Diego still puts on a pretty good show of being an island of casual hedonism.
You might expect to find S.D. in crisis, like the rest of California, as Randall Parker has been telling us about lately in ParaPundit. Picture its high-class, seaside village La Jolla, as blonde trophy wives offer themselves on the streets for a loaf of bread. Former $3 million houses fall into ruin. A globalist multi-billionaire rides through the streets in a coach drawn by four matched white horses, with his family crest emblazoned on the doors. He holds a scented handkerchief to his nose, tossing the odd coin to the ragged urchins in their hand-me-down Georgio Armani rags.
It's nothing like that, of course. California may well be turning into a Third World country, but one characteristic of Third World countries is that the rich still have their enclaves of beauty and luxe. So far that includes La Jolla and good neighborhoods like Coronado. They remain lovely -- in the case of La Jolla, breathtakingly beautiful like the French Riviera (and as expensive).
Expensive to live in, but not necessarily to visit. We didn't stay in La Jolla, but probably could have afforded to on a modest budget just by forgoing the palatial hotels in the center of the village. We did have lunch in the inexpensive and charming Osteria Romantica, very authentically Italian, very good food in a casual but pretty little trattoria setting. Wonderful Italian pop music from the '50s and '60s plays in the background. I recommend you dine there if you're in the area. You'll thank me for it.
People in S.D. on business have a reason to kip at one of the high-rise chain hotels on the waterfront, but why would any vacationer in their right mind stay in the seedy tourist shakedown area called the Gaslamp Quarter when the city offers so many more pleasant locations?
Almost anywhere outside the Gaslamp, something gladdens the eye. Balboa Park, where we spent a good deal of time, is one of those rare famous sites that are just as they should be, that cannot disappoint. Unlike Chicago and San Francisco, S.D. retained the wonderful buildings from its World's Fair early in the last century, and the Andalusian-style architecture is garnished with lush tropical flora.
Point Loma is at the end of a peninsula that gives you a spectacular view of S.D. on one side and the Pacific on the other. To get there you drive through Fort Rosecrans Military Reservation. On the hillside are row after row of stark white headstones marking the graves of those who died in service to their country. At the lookout point near the Cabrillo Monument (for the Portuguese sailor who led the first European expedition to these shores in the 16th century), we watched as an aircraft carrier made its way from the naval base and headed out to sea. At the nearest point to us, it entered a fog bank that was creeping in from the ocean and disappeared into it -- a fantastic real-life magic trick.
Natural beauty, which much of S.D. offers in abundance, needs to be leavened with human qualities. In that respect S.D. may have a few lagging indicators.
On a superficial level, people are pleasant enough. Sometimes almost maddeningly so. Everyone in the tourist industry -- not only at the car-rental desk, which is natural, but waiters, hotel personnel, car fetchers (I detest valet parking, but it's hard to avoid in S.D.) -- is dying to give directions and sightseeing tips.
This became something of a problem. I was fairly familiar with the city's geography and attractions, even places I hadn't been to, but my wife had only visited S.D. once before. To the question, "Do you know how to get to [or know about] ... ," the immediate answer from the pair of us tended to be a simultaneous yes and no. This presented our would-be helpers with an awkward dilemma. It was also evident that they were disappointed when their steering was unneeded. Eventually in the interest of good relations I just belted up and accepted directions and advice.
It's easy to dismiss the locals' helpfulness as a job requirement, and surely training in the "service industry" is part of its motivation, but there is an outgoing dimension to the native Southern California personality that makes the welcoming touch only partly artificial. I can't imagine any amount of training that could elicit such a beneficent attitude among workers in similar positions in, say, Boston or New York.
Nobody appeared to be in any hurry, a pleasing difference from most U.S. cities. It's probably a different story inside the elite institutions like Scripps and Salk, but the average San Diegoan seems to have a little of the manaña mindset.
S.D. does not strike me as a setting that encourages deeper personal attachments. I saw no couples (straight or gay) walking hand-in-hand. In restaurants it's mainly groups, even groups of families. With so many activities and enjoyable pastimes, possibly few feel any urgency about pairing up. Maybe that makes sense for the young, but it becomes a habit, and I wonder how much satisfaction people take in group scenes as they turn middle aged. S.D. has the virtues, but also the drawbacks -- for some -- of an extroverted culture. It can't be that comfortable long-term for those with serious intellectual interests. For a place of its size, it has few bookstores.
One day we drove to a town called Temecula about an hour north. It's famous for wineries and in a scenic mountain valley, but exemplifies the oncological growth that has nearly ruined many places in California, even outside the Mexican Invasion belt. Temecula has an old part of town that has been tourist industrialized into a self-parodying Old Town. Meanwhile the new Temecula that has grown up around it is appalling, wineries or no. Other than a large Abbott Labs facility, it consists mainly of huge shopping malls. One of them, a monstrous blight called the Promenade, is probably larger than the whole town was 30 years ago, and has all the inevitable big-box stores (Macy's, JCPenney, The Gap, Old Navy, &c.) arranged in a pattern that is maddeningly confusing to navigate.
Although we edited from our itinerary most areas of S.D. that should be avoided, it was impossible to ignore some of the cracks in the glittery facade of Southern California. There is a part of the city just north of Balboa Park, logically named North Park. About 1987, I visited friends who lived there. At the time North Park was, though not ritzy, the kind of respectable lower-middle-class neighborhood that has all but vanished. Today it is, according to one guidebook, "up-and-coming," although "down-and-going" would be more honest. That is, North Park is now very "diverse," which in California means Mexicanized, with outposts of the homosexual, punk, and Goth subcultures.
What drives to such extremes so many people who live in what is, for the most part, the attractive and benign environment of S.D.? At the Trader Joe's grocery, my purchases were rung up by a 20-something woman who was very pretty -- except for the tattoo that covered her entire right arm, up to the shoulder. It was the multi-colored picture sort of tattoo, like a comic book page.
I don't get it. Épater les bourgeois, okay, stand out from the crowd, sure. But how can a good-looking person, in a locale blessed by plentiful sunshine and exotic flowering plants, surrounded by the material aspects of the good life, feel so desperate to fit in with some scarcely imaginable peer group that she turns herself into a circus freak for the rest of her life?
Are we never satisfied?
No. We are not satisfied, even in an environment that can be mistaken for an earthly Eden. We try out substitutes, however bizarre, for what we need, but no substitute will do.
Whether we know it or not, we want Eternity.
On an obviously different level, I enjoyed myself immensely on the trip. Southern California still has a lot to recommend it for a visit. But despite having spent 10 years of my life in California, it and I have grown in different directions. I still feel, as worldly places go, "at home" in Santa Fe (although I haven't lived there since 1991) and Tucson, but California is now too foreign in too many ways.
That leaving-behind is probably good for my spiritual development. This world of sense phenomena is not my true Home. I must learn, to love, and to leave it.