"Nothing breaks the
spirit of a Californian like a fire – it starts quietly and then grows, moves
and acts as if with conscience, teasing you with a schoolyard bully’s joy."
– Gary Goldhammer, Below the Fold, 2007
As regular readers of this far too occasional blog know (my
day job is also often a night and weekend job, not a good recipe for frequent
posting), I like to wax on about Southern California culture and Los Angeles in
particular. Whenever possible I try to link these posts with something about
new media and journalism – this blog’s topic – but usually these parochial
musings fall outside my self-constructed confines.
This is one of those times.
So if you are looking for my take
on the Christian Science Monitor going entirely online, or Barack Obama posting
the weekly Democratic “radio” address as a YouTube video, or why I’m
increasingly pissed off that the term “social media” is so overwrought and
misused that it has lost all meaning and is now, at least for some, becoming a
substitute for authentic conversation and engagement (as asinine as that
sounds) – well, you’re going to have to wait a bit longer.
Nothing breaks the
spirit of a Californian like a fire. I wrote this a little more than a year
ago, after fires in Malibu, in San
Diego, and near my Orange
County house destroyed
thousand of homes and lives. I knew people who were affected, which made the
fire real – more so than the smoke and ash in my backyard or the dryness at the
back of my throat.
The past few days have seen more fire in the tinderbox we
call Southern California, this time in Santa Barbara County and once more in Orange County. And again I know people affected, including a close friend who had to evacuate
her Anaheim Hills neighborhood, not all that far from my Tustin area home.
Again the sky took on that ubiquitous red-orange glow. Smoke
filled the lungs and fire consumed not just our property but our minds. We
cursed the wind and prayed for the firefighters and our neighbors.
Fire holds a special place in my psyche. About 18 years ago
when I was a reporter, I covered another Santa Barbara fire. I remember my car filling with smoke as
I searched blazing hills for the fire command center, then taking cover under a
desk as an AP stringer and I shared the only working phone so we could call in
our stories (no Internet, e-mail or cell phones – yes, I’m that old.)
I remember a fellow reporter getting out of his car,
forgoing his job and objectivity to climb onto a stranger’s roof to help him
hose it down. I remember the homeowner who gave me a tour of the smoldering
embers that used to be his living room. And I remember standing next to a group
of firefighters working to knock down a flare up, wondering whether the heat
would burn my notebook before it burned us.
If I didn’t have a job to do I’m sure I would have been
scared to death, but fortunately there was no time. Fear comes later.
I feel that fear far more now than I ever did on the fire
line. I felt it watching the 24-hour local news coverage of neighborhoods and
towns I’ve known my whole life go up in flame. I feel it for my friends who,
like me back in Santa Barbara,
are too focused and busy to be afraid for themselves.
Maybe if I lived somewhere else I’d feel the same way about
floods, hurricanes or tornadoes. I know many other places experience the same
things during similar situations; the admirable response of man and machine is
a human trait, not a California one.
Yet I can’t help but feel there is something about Southern
California and Los Angeles that make them different. I find both to be complicated places, more so than
anywhere else I’ve lived or visited in the United States or abroad.
This region, with its diversity and unconscious yearning for
a collective soul, is capable of uncommon poetry and passion. It speaks to us in
times of tragedy and triumph – and then quickly retreats into its freeways,
Bluetooth headsets and industries of make believe.
Nothing breaks the spirit of a Californian like a fire. And
nothing except a fire can make this disparate people whole.