Life On The Edge

If you don't like the weather in northern California, wait a few minutes and it'll change. (Mark Twain might have said that.) Other climates are similarly mutable. A year or so ago the streets of quiet Stanford and Palo Alto were made impassable by shoals of new SUVs and by the parking valets for a galaxy of costly new restaurants. People with serviceable homes in the neighborhood were being offered Skywalker prices for them, in cash--on condition that they move out right away. Ordinary contracting work, underpinned by plentiful Hispanic labor, was hard to commission. It's pretty safe to say that the last thing on anyone's mind was the electricity bill.

Scroll on 12 months and Silicon Valley is in midinquisition about who lost the dot-com empire. Rolling blackouts encourage a reflective mood. Property prices are realistic again, and seats in good restaurants are easy to get--avec parking. And suddenly, now, the state has a surplus of power and even sells the stuff across its border. So what, as they say around here, was all that about?

This vertiginous alternation between public and private crisis must satisfy some need in the Californian soul. After all, "laid back" and mellow is itself an evolutionary response to deep-seated insecurity. Californians are never more than a rumble away from "the Big One," and there are buildings in Stanford still undergoing repair from the Loma Prieto quake of 1989. Ultra-refined as the Bay Area's lifestyle may be, it is a counterweight to the buried knowledge of temblor, tsunami, flash fire, drought and the business cycle.

That's the way it's supposed to be. As a character in Susan Sontag's "In America" phrases it, America has, in the West, its own America, its own object of desire and apprehension. People keep heading here in search both of change and stability. That contradictory longing registers in various ways. A decade ago the Republican Party seemed to have a lock on the state; now it has a difficult time even making the scoreboard. I feel increasingly like an idiot because I have only a few handholds on conversational Spanish; the next generation won't have this problem. More than once, though, on the edge of a remark, I have heard "native" Californians express guilty concern about the most obvious demographic change--the reduction of the European population to the novel status of largest minority. This will no doubt remain an apologetic mutter, as long as the demand for "help" stays strong. But who knows what tones will emerge with recession? California may no longer be a frontier state in the old gold-rush sense, but it is the frontline state in the huge experiment with Mexico. Outsiders often mistake this as a southland thing, affecting San Diego and Los Angeles. It's not. Drive into the suburbs of Silicon Valley, whether toward San Francisco or San Jose, and you're "south of the border" in minutes.

That said, had you sauntered across the campuses of Stanford or Berkeley a few years ago, it would have seemed that the majority of new immigrants were from Asia. That changed very fast as well, when sudden unforeseen strains in the "tiger" economies devalued the scholarships and grants of Korean and Japanese students. Today's seemingly ascendant ethnicities are from different parts. One hopefully ineradicable new development, arising from the special relationship between Subcontinental Indians and microchips: Silicon Valley is one of the few places in the United States where you can get a reliably good curry or tandoori without driving too far.

It's nice, in a way, to cling to some enduring and unchanging certainties. But sorry; for the most part it's just not part of the California Zeitgiest, neither in large ways nor small. Consider the uncontrollably liberal San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which has decided to prohibit discrimination against people who are fat or, shall we say, overweight. The saddest minority in a city emphasizing health and fitness are those who are unwholesomely shaped. That, as much as anything, exemplifies the region's two underlying and contradictory impulses--the idea that people come here to be all they can be, and the idea that a little or even a lot of gentle conditioning and quiet behavior-modification is a justifiable public-policy preoccupation.

That's at once the charm--and the eternal absurdity--of the California dream. All the actual changes I have been hinting at are enormous and social, or enormous and demographic, or enormous and technological, or enormous and political, or enormous and tectonic. Yet California's style and culture translate them into a seamless and continuous impulse toward growth and alteration, while happily stipulating that we should indeed change--one person at a time.