A Californian in Atlanta

Georgia’s “heartbeat” bill evokes Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays (1970)

Beach by South Fork Peachtree Creek, Morningside Nature Preserve Atlanta
Beach along the South Fork of Peachtree Creek, Morningside Nature Preserve, Atlanta

After living in Atlanta for 14 years, I remain convinced that as states go, Georgia and California are about as far apart, physically and culturally, as you can get. The sweltering humidity of Atlanta in July is completely unknown in California, where heat is dry, plunges at night, and reappears in the morning only after the fog lifts. The ocean is a long four-and a half hour drive away from Atlanta compared with minutes away in my native Bay Area, though I’ve recently discovered the sand beaches hidden along our copious creeks. California has “Cal” (University of California at Berkeley), the ghost of hippies past, while Georgia has “UGA” (University of Georgia, Athens) where students even today actually wear what appear to be Chanel dresses to football games. California speak may be vague, dude, but Georgia speak is intentionally indirect and veiled, bless your hearts. California has Hollywood, but Georgia has … Hollywood of the South. Finally! One point of state-to-state connection.

Half Moon Bay by Mimpei is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
“Half Moon Bay” by Mimpei is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

An exhibit on display now at The Carter Center called Georgia on my Screen traces the history of film in Georgia, beginning with the adaptation of Atlantan James Dickey’s novel Deliverance to film in 1972, continuing with then-Governor Jimmy Carter’s creation of the first state film commission in 1973, and culminating with its present position as a center of Marvel Studio productions (Avengers: Infinity WarAvengers: Endgame, Ant Man and the Wasp, and Black Panther) due to favorable tax incentives.

DSC00292 by BillDenney is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Atlanta’s Fox Theater, a former movie palace; DSC00292 by Bill Denney is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But “the Industry” in California is coming into some collision with Georgia now that Governor Brian Kemp has signed the “Fetal Heartbeat” law prohibiting abortion after a fetus’s heartbeat can be detected (approximately 6 week,  versus the federal legal standard of 20 weeks). Some Hollywood studios and actors are considering pulling their projects from Georgia in protest.

Los Angeles Theater by www78 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
“Los Angeles Theater” by www78 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

These recent ideological tensions called to mind Play It as it Lays, an existentialist novel by one of my favorite writers, Joan Didion. It was published in 1970, just three years before Roe v. Wade established today’s federal abortion standard. In it a backroom abortion in Encino, California, figures in the main character Maria’s mental breakdown. The abortion dramatizes the protagonist’s crisis of alienation, aimlessness, exile from the past and future in the social milieu in and around Hollywood. Maria (May-eye-ah) is a B-grade actress who is passed around by producers and struggles to find anything from her upbringing or past that applies to the world where she finds herself. She has one child, Kate, who is intellectually disabled, and who has been placed in an institution by her husband Carter. Kate is her emotional anchor as she moves through Hollywood sets, California freeways, parties, and mental institutions. She is pregnant with a fetus that is not her husband’s. In this sound clip dramatizing the book’s metaphor of life as a card game, Maria tries to play her hand for access to Kate with Carter, who is insisting that she have an abortion:

The illicit abortion occurs after transfer of money and amid rudimentary hygiene: “The floor of the bedroom where it happened was covered with newspapers. She remembered reading somewhere that newspapers were antiseptic, it had to do with chemicals in the ink…” The abortion haunts her.

GA45sRoadCurvesCountyLine by formulanone is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 Copy rich text
“GA45sRoadCurvesCountyLine” by formulanone is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

To those who say that Maria is a “self-centered pseudo-actress with a crack in her head…endowed by the author with the spunk of a jellyfish and the brain of a flea” (an actual 1970 review by Phoebe-Lou Adams), I would say that she is a not a vapid woman but a woman navigating a vapid landscape in which it is incredibly hard to find purpose, as suggested by this sound clip:

Maria tries to stay in the game and focus on the present, trying not to think of that back room in Encino, and holding out hope of being reunited with Kate. In one exhilarating passage in the book, Maria drives the freeway daily just to drive, a meditative act. I think of the immaculate and continuously tarred California freeways and also how people in Georgia don’t use the term “freeway,” I’ve been told. It’s a uniquely Californian term; freedom in California and Atlanta have profoundly different connotations.

LA by Davie Dunn is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
LA by Davie Dunn is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Didion comes from an old California family, was a student at Cal, and like Sylvia Plath, was selected as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine fresh out of university in the 50s, and later made her way to Southern California where she and her husband John Dunne did some script work.  She was considered a New Journalist along with Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson (see, for example, “In Hollywood” and her essay “On the morning after the sixties” from The White Album). Recently she has written several memoirs – including one, Blue Nights, that looks unflinchingly at aging – but I prefer her fiction. She is a brilliant rhetorician. Consider these words describing Maria’s attempt to live in the present following her mental breakdown:

I try not to think of dead things and plumbing. I try not to hear the air conditioner in that bedroom in Encino. I try not to live in Silver Wells or in New York or with Carter. I try to live in the now and keep my eye on the hummingbird. I see no one I used to know, but then I’m not just crazy about a lot of people. I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?

It is some comfort to me as a reader that Maria loves the child she has and that she and others are able to not bring another child into the world unwanted. For another California abortion classic see Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion (1971), and I highly recommend Walter Kirn’s She Needed Me (1992).

Joan Didion #wcw #wce by Tradlands is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Joan Didion #wcw #wce” by Tradlands is licensed under CC BY 2.0 


Riotous noon-day sun of the June-day long

Sidney Lanier’s The Marshes of Glynn comes alive in music

The Meridian Chorale performing in Southern Folk Passion, with Brenda Bynum on April 14, 2019 (photo courtesy of Meridian Herald)

I owe my budding awareness of Sidney Lanier entirely to Meridian Herald’s Southern Folk Passion this past Palm Sunday at the Church at Ponce and Highland. But for stumbling upon Lanier on the group’s website before the concert, I might have always assumed that Lake Lanier and the other Lanier monikers around Atlanta were named for a great engineer or politician. Knowing that they are named after a poet laureate from Georgia, one who was commissioned as a southerner to write the words (along with Dudley Buck, a northerner, to write the music) for the cantata for the 100th anniversary of the United States in 1876, deepens my understanding of Georgia as a literary place. That makes a difference to me. Continue reading Riotous noon-day sun of the June-day long

Not like one of the family

Seeing and hearing black nannies

Robert Frank Charleston South Carolina
Robert Frank, “Charleston, South Carolina,” from Framing Shadows exhibit, photo of a photo

Kimberly Wallace-Sanders’ exhibit Framing Shadows features 22 photos of African American nannies of white children from the 1840s to the 1920s, a family photo type found during these years in the eastern United States. It also displays novels that feature the mammy-child relationship such as Gone with the Wind, which Dr. Wallace-Sanders has written about in Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory. The juxtaposition shows a progression in Dr. Wallace-Sanders scholarship from the fictive mammy character in narratives, images, and artifacts to the real African American taking care of white children in historical photos and biographical accounts. The exhibit previews her upcoming book on this work Nannies, Mammies, and Love Slaves: Portraits of Black Women Taking Care of White Children 1850-1950. Continue reading Not like one of the family

In and around the oak

In honor of Earth Day

Best Connally Nature Park Hank Aaron 1
“Hank Aaron” white oak in Connally Nature Park, East Point

What are the significant trees in your world?

Last month I stumbled upon a memorial to “Big Al,” a massive willow oak on the Georgia Tech campus that spontaneously split and fell last autumn, shocking the community. Fall of a Champion was a student-produced exhibit on the more than 100-year-old tree that included benches, bookmarks, hinged wooden book covers, and coasters made out of Big Al, a poster that juxtaposed important events in the history of the university against dates of the rings in Big Al’s trunk, and paper meditations on trees. After that event I got to thinking about how trees inspire communication. Continue reading In and around the oak

Majestying in Buckhead

Out to dinner at King + Duke

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Restaurant at the corner of Peachtree Road NE and West Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Huckleberry Finn? It might be “floating down the Mississippi River on a raft,” or “friendship with Jim the runaway slave,” or maybe “smoking, cussing, fibbing… with a heart of gold,” or even “escaping ‘sivilization.’” Chances are you’re not going to say “food.” Continue reading Majestying in Buckhead

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

Romeo and Juliet at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern

As Valentine’s Day looms, the thoughts of those so inclined naturally turn to one love classic above all, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In this romantic tragedy, young lovers – Juliet is not even 14 years old! –  from feuding families – the Montagues and the Capulets – unite but fail to bring their families together; they die from hate, misunderstanding, and bad timing.

Like many Americans I first encountered Romeo and Juliet in high school, and imagined myself to be on the balcony where “stony limits cannot hold love out.” The thrill was enhanced with exposure to the Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 classic film adaptation with Olivia Hussey. But amid government shut-downs, and from the vantage point of the national capital of the civil rights movement, I confess that these days my thoughts turn more to the feuding Montagues and the Capulets than to the lovers Romeo and Juliet. Continue reading Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

Till it reaches the city of the sun


Reading Ovid in winter

There’s something very wonderful about the coming of winter, cold, and darkness. It allows a person to burrow in, curl up with the dog or cat, bask in the warmth of the hearth, and read things like Ovid. Culturally it’s the Season of Light. Falling close to the winter solstice, the Season of Light marks the darkest part of the year. Winter celebrations involving light date from the Stone Age if not before. The Romans had two winter celebrations:  Saturnalia, sometimes depicted as a festival of light leading to the winter solstice, and Sol Invictus, the festival of the sun God. Saturna, another pagan festival during the eight days up to the solstice, is depicted in the Jewish Talmud. The feast o Yule was celebrated by ancient Germanic peoples. Some of the old pagan rituals are similar to those in Christmas traditions. The Season of Winter, therefore, transcends any one religion or creed.  So does most mythology, which is so distant in time and place from our world today. In reading it, you simply disconnect from the present time and watch the struggle of larger-than-life characters play out in your mind’s stage. You bring the stories back to our world.

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House in December, Druid Hills, Atlanta

Ovid (43 BC-AD 17) rewrote Greek myths for a Roman audience. For example he retells the myth of Persephone as the myth of Proserpine (Book V), and it is a myth that explains winter. Continue reading Till it reaches the city of the sun