I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger
Ex-New Yorker takes the measure of California
By Ann Fabian
10 September 2006
Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune. All Rights Reserved.
A student came into my office last winter to see if I would give him credit for writing a paper on Stacy Peralta’s movie “Dogtown and Z-Boys.” If you teach American studies, you get used to students wanting to write on the things they like.
This was different. This time I was excited. For years I’d been wanting to teach a course on California.
"That’s a movie about California," I said. "The end of the American dream, empty swimming pools, broken-down piers, inventing something from nothing, that kind of thing. That’s how you think about California." Then I started pulling out books. Carey McWilliams, Joan Didion, Kevin Starr, Mike Davis, D.J. Waldie. I had them all there together, waiting for him.
"And how about a whole course on California?" I said. "I could do that. You’d like that, right?" By then my enthusiasm had the student backing out the door. "We’re not real interested in California," he said, invoking his absent friends for support. "I was kind of thinking about a paper on skateboarding."
Maybe Amy Wilentz could convince him. She started out in New Jersey, and she likes to think about California. Her new book, I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger, fits alongside those other California books. She could tell him why the empty pools matter. She could explain why writers like to use California to think about the end of the American dream, and why they never get tired of exposing the tricks California plays with politics, history and nature. And he would like her because she is perceptive and her writing is sharp and funny.
In 2003, Wilentz moved with her family to the tony Los Angeles neighborhood of Hancock Park, into a house with a pool and 17 first-floor doors opening to the outside. She arrived just in time to vote in the recall election that sent Gov. Gray Davis packing and put Arnold Schwarzenegger in Sacramento. Although she and her husband were new to California, they had easy access to the movers and shakers of Southern California’s culture industry. She had fine credentials as a journalist and writer, and he was an editor at the Los Angeles Times (a Tribune Co. paper). They chatted with commentator Arianna Huffington, lunched with Warren Beatty and talked politics with Rob Reiner and Larry David.
But Wilentz doesn’t want to be an insider. She wants to play around the edges of her California, to keep us wondering whether she is going to fit in in Los Angeles. She might not like to admit it, but she belongs there more than she lets on. She learns to play the California insider’s game, delighting in the absurd, touring the back lots, digging out the dark reality behind the sunny image, describing the poverty in the homeless camp a stone’s throw from Frank Gehry’s lavish Disney Concert Hall, spotting the starlet at the mall and acknowledging the Chicano housekeeper back in the kitchen. She knows that California is sometimes a parody of itself, but also that California is the source of contemporary American culture.
Many of us know Wilentz from her fine book The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier. She spent months in Haiti in the late 1980s and comes across in that book as a smart young writer sorting through Haiti’s problems with intelligence and clear-eyed sympathy. In Haiti she learned how to write about politics as a life-and-death struggle. As I was reading this new book, I wondered at times if her experiences covering dangerous places like Haiti or Palestine might not have left her overqualified for California.
She moved to Los Angeles thinking maybe she would escape the feelings of doom that descended on so many New Yorkers after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But a sense of catastrophe followed her west. The dangers she finds in California are elemental and therefore ubiquitous. The air fills with invisible, explosive methane gas, and the earth moves without warning. Water is often in the wrong places at the wrong times. There is too much of it or too little, and rich men buy it up and hoard it in so-called water banks. Each summer, fires scorch the hills around Los Angeles.
Wilentz describes herself and her adopted state in the clutch of these elemental dangers. They are there when she packs her boys off to school with emergency earthquake kits, or when a sign in a parking lot warns her about possible methane gas leaks. These dangers lurk just beneath a thin layer of politics that we like to imagine helps keep the world in order.
Schwarzenegger becomes the politician of choice for this state of catastrophe, the Terminator turned into the guardian. Wilentz wants to understand his peculiar appeal; his career ties together her book’s anecdotes and personal adventures. She reads up on the history of California politics and describes the backroom Republican dealings that made him a candidate. She buys a talking Terminator doll, and she goes to the inauguration.
I was hoping she would sit down with Schwarzenegger, the way she did with Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Unfortunately, the official who was setting up her meeting with the governor got canned before he could schedule an appointment. Maybe that was a good thing for the book. Schwarzenegger makes an easier target as an abstract figure. Or maybe a meeting was too risky. However unlikely, what if she fell for him?
The funny thing about this book is that Wilentz doesn’t want to fall for California. She learned to love many of the Haitians she met, but she doesn’t lose her heart to California or to any of the Californians she meets, with the possible exception of a stray pit bull and a long-dead woman dug out of the La Brea Tar Pits.
But I think she loves what she learns about the game of Southern California. It’s not just about seeing celebrities; it’s about spotting history and nature in a landscape that seems recent and artificial. Places and houses have histories. Even though nature appears to have been covered over, she learns, "Nature will reassert itself, a reality that no amount of artificiality can mask."
After a few years in California, she knows the back routes that let her avoid congested freeways. But she also knows that the highways in Southern California are flood outlets and that early each morning thousands of crows follow the highways into the city from its outskirts. Maybe there is hope for Los Angeles when Wilentz can see that "the sky the crows fly through is pink and orange at dawn–all evidence of nature’s sheer will to continue on here, regardless of man’s depredations."
By Alexandra Jacobs
3 September 2006
The New York Times
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.
A few years ago, Amy Wilentz’s husband got a job offer from The Los Angeles Times and she agreed, ambivalently, to move from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the West Coast with their three sons and dog. Raised in gritty Perth Amboy, N.J., Wilentz is an accomplished journalist who has corresponded from Jerusalem for The New Yorker and written a book about Haiti. But judging from her new memoir, she was not sufficiently braced by these adventures for the foreignness and violence of Los Angeles, which she likens to "another planet," with herself an "alien observer."
The assault on her psyche is twofold. There is the rugged Southern Californian topography, where potential disaster is always festering just under the Arcadian surfaces of beach and mountain and desert. Then there are the inhabitants, many of whom have coated these surfaces, not to mention their own forms, with plasticky veneers, all too easily fractured. "Why do I feel so unreal here?" Wilentz wonders. "As if I were a dark, unfinished patch in the middle of a bright, forgotten landscape painted by someone else?"
Like most devoted New Yorkers who find themselves in La-La Land, the author goes through at least half of the five stages of grief. After the initial shock — Palm trees! Hummingbirds! Valet parking! — comes denial, when one tries to pretend that this decidedly un-metropolitan city, teeming as it is with fellow expatriates, is really just a sixth borough. This is followed by bargaining, trying to compensate for the loss of the kind of serendipitous street life by making deals — big movie deals, ideally, though with a modesty that proves to be typical, Wilentz settles for a $1,100 location fee from a Scandinavian film crew shooting a bank commercial at her house (with pool) in Hancock Park.
A self-described "catastrophist" who invested in an inflatable boat after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the better to make her possible escape from the isle of Manhattan, the author is understandably spooked to find that her sons’ new elementary school is built on a major fault line. She soldiers on to find wildfire "lurking behind the swimming pool" of an upscale housing development, "peering through what remained of the landscaped foliage … like a curious, uninvited neighbor" (catastrophe can be comic); the mudslides ravaging the ravines where she likes to hike; the rats hiding in the ficus trees of Koreatown. Gamely, Wilentz hops into her minivan — it’s amazing how many New Yorkers arrive at this apogee of the automobile outright refusing to drive, as if their very souls might evaporate along with the gasoline — to interview state legislators, planners and shopping-mall moguls, intellectually excavating the shaky bedrock of this baffling megalopolis. "I’m not too interested in infrastructure or engineering, usually," she writes. "But in California you have to be."
Well, one should be, perhaps … but many of the citizens have other preoccupations, like show business, fame and material wealth. And these are the topics that make Wilentz truly tremulous. After all, she is "dark, bespectacled, bookish," "a failure at the fashion game" (or so she claims); "shy and self-conscious and excessively verbal," in a place where the dominant feminine paradigm remains bodacious, blond and brainless. The resident she relates to most, to borrow a bit of touchy-feely local parlance, is La Brea Woman: an anonymous 9,000-year-old tar pits fossil with a fractured jaw and a hole in her skull.
Yet even assuming these imaginary social handicaps, Wilentz manages to bumble her way into some pretty nifty digs. She goes to Watts and Skid Row, sure, but she’s also nibbling canapes with Rob Reiner at Arianna Huffington’s manse in Brentwood, summing up the scene with this perfect little tone poem: ‘"Many skinny wives in tight jeans, their blouses diaphanous in the setting sun, come … bearing baked desserts which they did not bake and will not eat." Wilentz, by contrast, eats well. She shares pizza with Warren Beatty on Mulholland Drive; tastes premium bittersweet chocolate at the baronial estate of the Beverly Hills billionaires Lynda and Stuart Resnick; cozies up to the cake with Meg Ryan at Carrie Fisher’s birthday party in Coldwater Canyon. And she dishes (though is perhaps a little too proud, in that New Yorker’s I-can’t-drive way, of her trouble identifying random celebrities).
One enclave she fails to penetrate is that of California’s famous governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose election, coinciding roughly with the promotion of the "Terminator 3" movie on DVD, provides her with a font of scathing political indignation and cultural analysis of everything from capital punishment to metrosexuals loitering at the Apple computer store. "The age of Schwarzenegger is clearly a time for re-evaluating what it means to be a man in California, in America," Wilentz declares, taking a page from another ex-East-Coaster, Susan Faludi.
It is also a time for re-evaluating, more hazily, what it means to be a woman, "a California girl, loosely defined" — one brave enough to ramble in sprawling Los Angeles, where it’s all too easy to get totally lost.
A newcomer to the Golden State finds a land of fear and woefully inadequate public services.
By Jonathan Yardley
13 August 2006
The Washington Post
Not long after Sept. 11, 2001, Amy Wilentz, a freelance writer, moved with her husband and children from New York to Los Angeles. Like many if not most New Yorkers, she had been deeply affected by that day’s terrorist attacks and their aftermath — "there were checkpoints at the subway stops, armed guards at entrances to bridges, and something called ‘police actions’ that occasionally stopped all traffic in both directions" — but the reason for the move was more mundane: "my husband had been offered a job as an editor at the Los Angeles Times." She had always held California in disdain, as many New Yorkers do, but she "thought I could do with a break from the stress," so she accepted the move with something close to relief.
She found, of course, that she was merely moving from Terrorist Central to Fire and Earthquake Central — indeed, to Trouble Central: "I had arrived in L.A. hoping to avoid catastrophe, only to find that I was living in its capital. My new friends advised me: Cash and water in your car (Tampax too). Full tank, always. Slippers or flip-flops next to each bed (for walking on the inevitable broken glass). Flashlights everywhere, especially in night tables; make sure the batteries are live. Emergency lights. Hand-cranked radio. This all was beginning to sound too familiar. And don’t forget: The safest spot is still in a door frame or under a sturdy table; outside is dangerous until the shaking has stopped; door frames without doors are better because doors can swing and knock you out. Bolt all your bookcases to the walls."
Fire and earthquakes were only the beginning. Not long after Wilentz arrived, southern California, where it never rains, was inundated with rains of biblical proportions. Houses that in other weather might have burned to the ground or crumbled to pieces slid down hillsides or were engulfed in muck. The state, once the richest and healthiest in the union, was $27 billion in debt, "a deeply flawed place with bad public education and poor health care — a gas-guzzling consumathon with hundreds of thousands of miles of asphalt but barely any public transportation." It was deeply divided over issues of race, ethnicity and language. On top of everything else, its duly elected governor, Gray Davis, a Democrat, had been recalled in part because of his mishandling of a power crisis but also because of the desire of influential Republicans simply to be rid of him, and a muscle-bound movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was well ahead in the campaign to replace him.
All of which — and much more — is grist for Wilentz’s mill in I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen, a mouthful of a title that doubtless won’t do much to help the book’s sale (imagine asking a sales clerk for it) but that does accurately reflect the author’s state of mind: apprehension that at times seems wildly disproportionate to the disturbance or threat at hand. Though she’s done extensive stints as a foreign correspondent in dangerous places (Jerusalem, Haiti) and walked through Manhattan with her children after the Sept. 11 attacks, Wilentz has a highly developed sense of her own real or imagined connection to the dangers of the world and indulges that sense at some length in this book.
That’s the tiresome part. The good part comes when Wilentz stops chafing her exposed nerve ends and just has fun, at the expense of various aspects of California that richly deserve ridicule. At times she lapses into ritualistic California-bashing, to which many of us Easterners are susceptible, but there’s plenty about California that simply demands satire — just as there is plenty about Washington, D.C., that demands the same — and it turns out that Wilentz, though a creature of the pious left, has a fully operable and most engaging sense of humor.
Indeed, one can’t help wonder what sort of L.A. social life she’ll have after this book hits the stores, since she’s quite merciless about some of the people in whose houses she’s been entertained. There is, for example, Arianna Huffington, proprietress of the noted blog and high priestess of chic L.A. liberalism. Huffington "looks like an exaggerated Jackie Kennedy, and she talks like Zsa Zsa Gabor, but unlike most women in Hollywood circles who are not starlets . . . Huffington gets some respect and is listened to — to a degree." She is "a well-connected socialite and perennial gadfly and ambitious in the extreme (she was once called the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus)," and:
"What is remarkable is that only a decade ago, when Huffington lived in conservative Santa Barbara with her Texas oilman husband, she was an archconservative and a Republican herself. She’s always been a quick study and realized in a half-second that when you arrive in Hollywood as an industry outsider, you can’t be conservative and a Republican and expect to have fun or standing or celebrity. Hollywood, in turn, has leaped to accept the revised Huffington."
She gives frequent parties and is a member in eminent standing of a spectacularly self-important group called "the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, a group of academics, achievers, artists, curators, and writers who meet twice a month for sit-down, white-tablecloth luncheons at the Faculty Club at the University of Southern California," where they talk solemnly about ills of the world that they alone are qualified — by dint of their celebrity, their beauty and their sublime virtue — to solve. Huffington also gives and attends parties of the Hollywood A-list: "No one ever gives a party just to have fun, an occasion to gossip, drink, and wear nice shoes. A party here always has a money aspect and an informational aspect — as if they have to justify a party and prove that their heads contain something other than air."
Yes, nailing those people is like shooting whales in a barrel, but Wilentz hits the bull’s-eye dead center. Ditto when she homes in on Schwarzenegger, the only internationally famous California political figure who makes Ronald Reagan seem an intellectual and a statesman. He "was drawn to politics as another stage on which Schwarzenegger could perform and be watched, loved, worshipped. He’s a pure narcissist — contentless, and in this way highly appropriate to his times. An uncontrollable element of egotism is characteristic of all who present themselves for very visible office, of course, but pure love of their own image is not usually the only element that propels them." Wilentz is fascinated by Schwarzenegger and tries hard (with no luck) to obtain an interview with him, but she correctly observes that his "candidacy in its most easily understandable form — Terminator for governor — simplified politics and infantilizes the electorate." Though the electorate probably was infantilized a long time ago, she gets the main point:
"There were certainly political reasons to mistrust Schwarzenegger. His was a masquerade candidacy. Like so many political events in recent years, Schwarzenegger’s run was portrayed as the opposite of what it was; the campaign pretended to be for the popular good when it merely furthered the status quo, alleged it would help the little guy when it clearly was intended to make things easier and better for business interests, used the mask of tax givebacks and a ‘no new taxes’ platform as a populist cover-up for its corporate underpinnings."
Wilentz believes "that California has a dark heart," and there is much evidence to support her. Schwarzenegger and the people behind him are merely the latest heirs to the state’s history of venality and unrepresentative government. "Since the beginning of its modern development," Wilentz writes, "there hasn’t been enough water in California, and hence major fortunes in the state have famously (and infamously) been made on water rights, water infrastructure, water bank, and water control." The railroads owned the state until the governorship of Hiram Johnson (1911-17), and for several decades thereafter the state enjoyed a reputation for progressive government, but that ended with a bang in 1973 with the passage of Proposition 13, which rolled back property taxes and ultimately left the state’s public education system "down there among the bottom ten, along with traditionally poor, underfunded states such as Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Nevada, and New Mexico."
Not a pretty picture, and so long as Schwarzenegger and his masterminds run things, the picture isn’t going to change, except possibly for the worse. "Where’s the edge," Wilentz asks, "the California Promise?" The answer, apparently, is that it’s gone.