This is a still from Griffin Dunne’s Joan Didion documentary I finally got around to watching, here in Sysmä, Finland, where I’m eating and drinking very little and trying to work very hard on the next book. It’s from Vegas, I imagine, from the part of the movie where they talk about John Gregory Dunne’s Vegas memoir, which I hope to read as soon as I’m back in a place where I can readily find English language books.
I love this image for its fonts and camp lushness. The Didion doc was inspiring, of course, the long story of a writer so strong in her commitment to seeing through images like this one, or past them, or—later in her career—toward more sobering and weighty subjects, but I’ve just come off a month in Vermont with very queer people, writers and artists, who in response to my antics and my writing—which is seeking out what’s funny the way a drowning man seeks air—didn’t look away or roll their eyes. With my shaky ideas that moving art can begin from a place of stupidity and silliness, my very queer friends all seemed to Get It.
I’ve loved Didion for so long. She made me want to be a writer, or at least a better one. But tonight I’m trying to remind myself of a feeling I had the second day I got here, doubting that I had anything of value to write again: What if all we had in the world was Joan Didion, like a remote part of the country where you can tune in only one radio station?
I would hate to live in that place. So thank you, Griffin Dunne, for including the above image in the movie about your elderly aunt.
Once or twice a month, toward the end of the class period, Frau Griffith would announce that we’re gonna play Was Lieben die Deutschen? which wasn’t so much a game as a call-and-response lesson. “What do the Germans love?” Frau Griffith asked, in German, and we answered, in German.
The Germans love flowers.
The Germans love coffee and cake.
The Germans love hiking.
The Germans love sunshine.
They were outdoorsy, these Germans, and so gemütlich! I learned certain nouns during Was Lieben die Deutschen?, but I also learned that a culture of people in Europe all loved the same things, and that by the nature of their being European these things became in my mind un-American things, not in a way that meant I had to avoid them, much less somehow disavow them, but just that they didn’t seem to be for me.
I was 13. Still today, though I love coffee and cake, I don’t care for hiking or flowers or sunshine.
The Germans love regular exercise? That one can’t be right. The old litany is lost to memory, and in its place is a question: what can we know of a whole people?
Yesterday, the morning after the election, it was clear that no amount of dreaming about pending mail-in votes was going to change the fact that Californians, of whom I’ve been a part for 5 years now, said no to expanding rent control protections. The arguments my fellow Californians bought into claimed that more communities with rent control would lead to less development (an easily stoked fear in a state with a massive housing shortage), or that what they called “mom and pop” landowners would lose so much money they’d have to sell their buildings to some faceless company.
My city’s big daily newspaper profiled such a mom a couple months back, with big color photos of her in front of her building and a tone of “I just don’t know what I’m going to do if I can’t set whatever rent prices I feel I can get away with.” It was one of a number of reasons I canceled my subscription, all of them about the predictability that the Chronicle sided with money, believed in money, and covered any contest or opposition to moneyed-interests with skepticism.
I thought we renters were the majority, but it turns out just 45.2 percent of Californians are tenants. Somehow, in this state that leads the nation in highest median home costs, the majority of people own their home. In a democracy, we can’t ask for minority rule (though we have it, the ruling GOP repeatedly unable to win popular votes), but what still makes me angry about the defeat of Prop 10 is how we weren’t even asking the majority for sacrifice.
Just help. After living for 10 years in Nebraska and Alabama, moving to California felt like coming up from the depths of a pool. I could breathe, relax. It was like coming out of the closet. I felt that I had finally found my people—here, a gay person had rights; here, Neal and I could be legally recognized as partners; here were real investments in green energy and publicly funded healthcare and easy(er) access to abortion services.
But what I didn’t expect (stupidly) was the unimaginable wealth I was going to live among. And I didn’t know that the liberalism that so many Americans deride California for only went so far. Rights for us gays and gender-neutral bathrooms cost Californians very little and made them feel very good. But long-term residents staying in their homes when newly arrived workers will unfussily pay twice the rent? That sort of thing is unacceptable to a Californian. The principles of liberalism, I saw, got quickly tossed out the window when there was money to be made.
This is probably true to all of the U.S. these days, which is why the happy news from election night was the success of billionaire Marc Benioff’s campaign to support the tax on corporate profits to fund homeless services in San Francisco. I can’t remember the last time I saw a billionaire not just accept having to give up some of his profit to help the rest of us, but actively work to make it happen.
It’s a shame our corporate-moneyed mayor couldn’t get on board.
This just hit me: I’m writing as a wealthy person with rent control. I moved here five years ago and paid the astronomical rent I was charged, albeit with much fuss. If I’m not part of the problem I’ve been writing about, I’m an example of it. Maybe it’s because of this that I volunteer with the San Francisco Tenants’ Union and donate to the Coalition for the Homeless. Or maybe it’s because of this that I vote the way I do, and have turned far more progressive and pro-union since moving here. I recognize that many people need help, and I see that I have help I can give.
Also: I might have a rotten and tiny idea in my head of what is a Californian. What do the Californians love? Money, is the first thing I’d say. Feelings of superiority toward the rest of the country and its citizens. These are true. I’ve had them myself. But Californians also love sunshine. They love coffee and cake and hiking and flowers. It’s hard to believe that you can get a read on A People by looking at their loves and desires, because desire is so apolitical and a people are a polity ruled by laws and custom.
This is why it’s easy for me to be friends with a Republican and hate the Republican Party. I’m not looking past a person’s politics, I’m looking at a person, and a person is not their politics. I worry that, because the TV show American Politics is so thrilling these days, more and more people are taking sides—Team Edward!—because taking sides feels good, or it feels like a way to know you Are Good. You’re on the Good Team. I’ve never been a good team player, and yet here I am: Team California. The best way I think I can play for that team is to lead from my desires, my loves. Going in the opposite direction—choosing what I desire based on my politics—is a trap I’m afraid to fall in, showing fealty to ideas some people have paid millions of dollars to make me believe.