My best friend John's home burned to the ground yesterday afternoon. He and his wife and their two kids — one of them my goddaughter, a 3-year-old tomboy-in-training named Laura — left their home in San Diego on Monday. When I called them that morning, in fact, they were already in Carlsbad, 15 miles away. The evacuation seemed more proactive precaution than absolute necessity. John sounded upbeat; the children were fine, they'd taken all the "important" stuff — the photos, the computer, the odds 'n ends that would be impossible and agonizing to catalog here — and they were near the ocean, the kids' favorite place to be and one of the only places where the sky actually looked blue.
Yesterday, I rang again. They'd moved locations and were now in Laguna at a shopping center, wasting time. I asked John about the house. Again, he seemed upbeat: he didn't know how close the fires were to the house, and was waiting for news from a neighbor. At the very least, the fire line seemed to be a few miles away; or so the websites were reporting. I asked him about the sky; he said it was slightly gray, and in the distance, south and east, brown and yellow. Laura babbled in the background. I pictured the two of them standing near a candy shop or children's store and Laura pulling on his pants trousers, urging him on, and in. A few hours later, he called to say everything was gone.
I am from California, the part of California where earthquakes and floods, not wildfires, are the norm — nay expected. But anyone from California — or anyone familiar with the work of those writers or artists whose careers were made through the dispassionate chronicling of California's strange, singular, ominous beauty — knows that Californians live with the knowledge that the ground could, at any moment, fall from beneath them, whether literally or figuratively. Some question why Californians live that way. The only acceptable answer is that if you haven't done it, you'd never understand.
Not understanding was part of the problem for us yesterday. At my urging, one of my writers composed a post on one aspect of the media's coverage of the fires currently blackening much of Southern California, with the critique that, as is the case in much of American society, the ivory towers of the rich and the famous were receiving a disproportionate amount of the attention. However, for reasons of haste, an attention-getting headline and yes, some heartless bitchiness about political persuasion and income distribution, some of that critique was lost and, as a result, many understandably took offense.