Nancy Lemann

Nancy Lemann

A weeklong electronic journal.
June 12 1997 3:30 AM

Nancy Lemann

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       The best thing about San Diego is that it's not hard to look at. The landscape reminds me of North Africa, with the tall palms and hot, flat, shining sea and some dilapidated houses. Balboa Park is a raging Spanish colonial vision. It has lawn bowling with old guys in white suits and safari helmets.
       At first I was the San Diego Chamber of Commerce's worst nightmare. This was mainly because of the heat and sun. It was as if I had moved to Africa. The African plain. I kept wondering why it isn't talked about. In New Orleans, for instance, where I'm from, the incredible heat and humidity and miserable conditions are part of the atmosphere, and people complain of it and speak colorfully of it and it is part of the picture, but here it isn't talked about. It was talked about in Carey McWilliams' sociological study of Southern California in the 1940s: "Here the sun glares out of a high blue sky--a sun that can beat all sense from your brains, that can be destructive of all you have known and believed: a relentless, pounding, merciless sun."
       I drove up to Del Mar. This is an extremely Sybaritic community right on the ocean. With views of the vast and after all quite glamorous, if you don't have to swim in it, Pacific. The architecture is off-puttingly '60s mod for the most part, but it is still a somewhat old community for Southern California (1920s) and there are quite a few traces of that era. There is a racetrack founded by Bing Crosby in the '20s. You take Jimmy Durante Boulevard to get there. There is a fabulous hotel, reproducing the one from the '20s (they don't let things get very old here before they have to make them new again). You take long walks and look at the vistas of the vast and glamorous Pacific. If you live there the message is kind of like: "I just live in this incredibly Sybaritic California paradise, I relax, I see the ocean constantly, I take it easy, and basically my ceaseless plea in life is to relax."
       The most striking thing about this region is the inhabitants' ceaseless plea to relax. They have some sort of exaggerated phobia of stress, even though there is no stress here to begin with, and are obsessed with fighting stress, even though the whole point of San Diego is in being the least stressful city in the United States.
       Every day in the local paper the stories are always about the following topics: surfing, panda bears, baby whales, trouble at the border. The rainfall is listed obsessively--except there is no rainfall, and they have to list it cumulatively from years past.

Nancy Lemann is the author of Lives of the Saints, The Ritz of the Bayou, and Sportsman's Paradise. Her new novel will be published in February.