strangelove in santa margherita

The other day a photo story appeared: the hovering starburst in the LA sky of what was later revealed to be a nuclear missile test, as seen from “a Girl Scout singalong in Central Park, Rancho Santa Margherita.”

The missile was not armed, we were later informed. I wonder: if the Girl Scouts had been, would it have made a difference in the outcome?

california lite

The Eastern European author’s rueful voice broadcasts commentary on a 1000-year-old Hebrew service being held in a desolate Hungarian synagogue for the remnants of an ancient population decimated by the history of the past century.

This sounds odd on the car radio, driving in traffic in the bright midday California glare, the highway verge dotted with the sterile recent functionality of California’s low buildings, and seeing inside the big, shiny cars the hair-gelled heads, the passing faces—hard, pink, unmarked by life—of its people.

car radio

It is a song from the 1970s, with long extended guitar solos, a melody that appears and disappears in wild, driving riffs, the musicians locked into their instruments, dueling with one another to take the song to an always farther, deeper, wilder place, and you are driving along the California coast with the blue sea a brilliant promise and it builds and builds as the sun shines brighter and brighter and you are back again in the days when you first heard the song and in your adolescent imagination roads opened up, endless roads, and you were whirled along them with joy in the feel of the wind on your face and the scenery sweeping by like a banner unfurling and the feeling that the song was endless the moment was endless and the song builds and builds until everything is perfectly balanced: guitars, hills, road, wheels, wind, sky all flowing together, and as long as the song keeps on rising and moving toward some kind of unimaginable ecstasy you can almost forget what you’ve learned in the long years since: that all roads eventually end or circle back and the destination can never match the promise of the ride and your ride had no destination anyway so really you were going nowhere at all.

ode to california

How can you love California? How can you love madness on such a grand, operatic scale? Her lovely wild rivers dammed into silent, sterile lakes, her shuddering hillsides sculpted into barren earthworks that dwarf the pyramids so the garish mansions of the rich can squat there, her incomparable wildernesses paved over and turned into smoggy theme parks… Loving such a place, the sheer overweening scale of which unleashes capitalist ambition at its most monstrous, is like the tragic love of a child for a dangerously insane parent.

And on those days of perfect spring weather, of which California has so many, and which can occur disconcertingly at almost any time of the year: the hopelessly blue skies, the golden light, it’s easy to see how California has driven us all mad. Like a gorgeous lover, it presents the illusion that perfection is attainable. And so its inhabitants drive around restlessly, obsessively, encased in metal and glass, in a state of perpetual irritation and frustration, because somehow things are not perfect, and yet they should be.

Maybe this is the right place from which to view the twilight of the American Empire, though. Because even if the technocrats and bioengineers think they’re starting a new thousand-year reich here, every day the earth trembles, and crumbles into the sea. Under the din of ever “smarter” cars and louder TVs and faster computers is the steady drumming of the ocean at the land, wearing it away, wearing away the location shots for GM commercials, the golf courses and the foundations of those mansions on the hillsides. To the west the ocean, to the east the wild fires and mudslides—every year they take hostage the power of the powerbrokers to shape reality, to buy and sell worlds at will.

What we as a people have so far failed in this crucial epoch to do is stop the “masters of mankind,” (as Adam Smith, ur-capitalist called them, whose “vile maxim” he said, is “all for ourselves, nothing for other people”) from diminishing and impoverishing our lives, from stealing pleasures and necessities that were ours by right and selling them back to us, ever less for more. But what we have not had the strength or the courage or the know-how to do, perhaps Nature is doing, in her ageless, ineluctable way. And perhaps when it is finally done there will still be some humans left who have understood her language, ignored by most for centuries, who will teach the rest how to make the gardens in which the race was meant to thrive.

And even now, today, I tell you, driving on the superhighway up the Central Valley, turning at Tracy where a house-sized American flag waves protectively over the megalithic mall, its burger joints and big-box stores—and seeing those sensuous, indestructible hills rising in the west, the hills that are the gateway to my home, and coming out from under that pitiless Western sky that never softens from the time you cross the Rockies, a sky that’s so brilliant and hard it’s beaten a century and a half of white men into vigilantes, serial killers and tycoons, with the windmills at Altamont Pass spinning madly like the rich man’s folly that they are, and the sun now setting on the enormous fog bank that hovers just beyond those darkening coastal hills, turning its frothy edges gold—well, I tell you, it still looks like the gateway to the Heavenly City, like I am coming home to Paradise.

on sweeney ridge

Taking the path down from Sweeney Ridge, the wild flowers were sparse daubs of vivid color on the grey canvas of a cool, foggy day. We were tired from a long climb, and happy, because the air smelled sweet and everything around us gave us a sense of physical wellbeing. At once I could see the two of us returning from a day’s work of some physically taxing but skilled, familiar and useful kind, together with a phantom group of comrades suddenly at our sides. We had passed the day out in that sweet air, working with people we had known all our lives, making up work songs to add to the long list of songs we knew by heart, that we or our parents or their parents had created. We felt the bonds that wove us together with one another and everything we saw and touched. It was only possible and yet it was more real than the jet that screamed into view, climbing off the vast concrete airfield below as we descended.

a sanctuary

The spa is described as “a sanctuary for the self.” Its warm waters flow out past big metal gates, down the California valley filled with spring wildflowers.

Behind the gates is an old hotel, with polished wood and soft beds. Behind the gates are steaming pools, sheltered from the road, hung about with rice paper lanterns that glow softly at night.

In the pools, pink bodies float silently, eyes closed. Around them, brown bodies move efficiently, changing the sheets, sweeping the stairs, cleaning the gutters. Making the guests comfortable. The guests can relax; they are safe, in sanctuary here. (You can’t just walk in. You don’t get past the gates unless they know you.)

The guests are taking sanctuary— from the world that they, in fact, own. The spa says it offers them healing, but they will be disappointed. Hot water and silence will not relieve them of the burdens of ownership.

Outside the gates, the water flows on through the valley. Finally, reduced to a trickle, it will be lost in a vast ocean that batters itself daily against the crumbling fortress of land.