I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen : Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger
From one of our most astute contemporary writers, Amy Wilentz, comes an irreverent, inventive portrait of the state of California and its unlikely governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The prizewinning author, a lifelong easterner and an outsider in the West, takes the reader on a picaresque journey from exclusive Hollywood soirees to a fantasy city in the Mojave desert, from the La Brea Tar Pits to celebrity-besotted Sacramento, from the tents of Skid Row to surf-drunk Malibu, from a snowbird retreat near Mexico to the hippie preserve of tide-beaten Big Sur, along the way offering up sharp observations on politics, fund-raising, the water supply, the Beach Boys, earthquake preparedness, home economics, catastrophism, movie-star politicians, political movie stars, Charlie Manson, and location scouts who want to rent your house in order to make television commercials for bathroom wall cleansers or Swedish banks.
Wilentz moved to Los Angeles from a Manhattan wounded by September 11, only to discover a paradise marred by fire, flood, and mudslides. In what seemed like a joke to her, a Democratic governor nicknamed Gumby was about to be ousted by an Austrian muscleman in a bizarre election promoted by a millionaire whose business was car alarms. Intrigued, she set out to find the essence of the quirky, trailblazing state. During her travels, she spots celebrities but can't quite place them, drops in on famous salons with habitués like Warren Beatty and Arianna Huffington, and visits the neglected office of one very special 9,000-year-old woman.
Plunging into the traffic of California, Wilentz noodles out meaning in some of the least likely of places; she sees the political in the personal and the personal in the political. By now an expert on tremors real and imagined, she offers readers on both coasts insights into where California stands today, and America as well.
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Simon & Schuster
August 14, 2006
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Excerpt from I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen by Amy Wilentz
The Game of Celebrity
In my neighborhood, a couple of miles down Third Street from the Grove, Michelangelo's nineteen Davids are wearing Santa hats. So is the petite Venus de Milo who stands among them. A few years ago, the Davids also wore festive red jock straps, but that element of holiday haberdashery has been abandoned. It's December 2005. The house in front of which the Davids and Venus stand throughout the year (minus the Santa hats) is considered a local eyesore and an infringement on its neighbors' property values, but I've come to admire its outlandishness, its over-the-top tastelessness, its bad-boy nose-thumbing in my neighborhood of goody-goodies. Still, I'm glad the Davids are not my next-door neighbors.
In this season, fake snow blankets their yard; on the roof of the well-kept white-brick house are the white letters FHP, as tall as a man, with the exhortation "Feed His People" written on them in smaller type. In front of these three letters, an African American Santa -- a plump mannequin -- is balancing on the eaves, a golden saxophone at his lips. The numbers 2006, in glittering, lightbulb-encrusted white, stand on the white lawn, each digit five feet high. In a corner of the garden, visible from busy Third Street, two African American life-sized dummies of Santa and Mrs. Claus sit companionably on a love seat, wearing gilt-rimmed sunglasses.
It's one way to welcome the New Year. At night the scene is professionally lit, and every once in a while, as I drive by, I'll see a family of tourists standing in front of the white cast-iron fence, having a picture taken.
Like the redwood forests and the Santa Monica shoreline (protected by shorefront property owners like David Geffen, the record and film producer, from untoward intrusion by the public), front lawns have become a political and philosophical battlefield here in California, where the small-scale topography by now reflects all the ills of development: the suburban sprawl, the decimated forests, the dry rivers, the tangle of freeways. What is natural has been all but covered up, except for protected places like the Desert Tortoise Natural Area and those spots where it's just not feasible to build: the steep, unstable, and noninfrastructured canyons where I hike, for example.
Even what is natural here is unnatural. A tour of Cook's Meadow on the Merced River in Yosemite Valley is available now for amateur photographers and tourists who want to stand where Ansel Adams once stood and see the exact view that he put in his famous pictures. They can even try to take pictures of what was in his pictures. On the Ansel Adams Gallery Tours (nine to eleven a.m., Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays), you can take the photograph Ansel Adams took; this is a profoundly mediated way of approaching both art and nature. In fact, it's a celebrity-sighting approach to nature, the equivalent of wanting to go meet the David of those Davids, shake his hand, or meet the model for the Mona Lisa, tell her a joke. ("Yeah, I met them," you could say after.) As if that were the value of the photograph or the painting.