Whenever disaster strikes California, which it does on a fairly regular basis, friends who live elsewhere are inclined to ask, with a slightly smug tone, "Why do you LIVE there?"
Good question, but not one we are likely to answer when we are actually going through the disaster-du-jour, in this case a fire so ferocious we could only stare in awe as enormous mushroom clouds of smoke blocked out the sun and drove us all indoors, a place we usually care to visit only for short periods of time. Forced to confront this preview of nuclear winter, we coped by reciting a familiar litany of loss - homes, lives, acreage.
We Californians like to quantify catastrophe - "38% contained!" - report the firefighters, and we rejoice, never stopping to question just how they KNOW it's exactly 38% contained. There is comfort in such precision, comfort in believing that - before too long - the beast will be not just contained but CONTROLLED.
And then we can all go back to doing what Californians do best, letting go and moving on. Oh sure, we clear the brush around the house, make sure the earthquake kit is up to date, but then - a sort of collective amnesia sets in, disaster DENIAL, if you will, which is - I suspect - what's happening right now.
This week, a little breeze blew off the ocean, bringing just a touch of delicious humidity, but not too much, not enough to make us uncomfortable. "Muggy" is just not in our vocabulary. Ditto "Mosquitoes." As I sat outside with my family, enjoying the blue skies and mild temperatures, happy that I could no longer look directly at the sun, I had a sudden insight into just why the whole BE HERE NOW philosophy thrives in California. What's the alternative? Being Here Last Week was pretty hellish. And Being Here Next Week is also somewhat dicey, with the fire season just beginning. Throw in the rainy season, which will predictably bring floods and mudslides, not to mention the completely unpredictable moment when a couple of tectonic plates decide to shift under our unsuspecting feet, and you're looking at a pretty good argument for Being Here Now. We have learned to co-exist with the very worst that nature can throw our way, to accept the paradox that is California - peril and paradise, one-stop shopping.
Even so, the best time to ask us "Why do you LIVE there?" is not while we are immersed in our disaster, be it fire, flood or earthquake. The best time to ask is sometime in January, when we are sipping fresh orange juice at a sidewalk café, or hiking in those once-again-green hillsides overlooking the sea, or any number of things - except, that is, scraping ice off our windshields. In California, in January, we are snug and smug. Until, of course, we aren't.