Someday, in a more enlightened future—not in my lifetime, surely, but someday—an athlete from California will be written about in the public prints or talked about on television without being called "laid-back." Oh, I know that sounds incredible, because the media quite obviously have an unwritten rule dictating that all Californians, however aggressive, avaricious, ill-tempered or mean-spirited they may be, must be called laid-back or, at the very least, mellow (mellow may be gaining ground on the other, more pervasive adjective, although the meaning, if there is any, is the same). Just when most other regional stereotypes—the slow-witted Southerner, the bragging Texan, the truculent New Yorker—seemed to be passing into a deserved oblivion, along came the laid-back Californian to demonstrate that Americans haven't forgotten how to attach meaningless and inaccurate labels to sizable parts of the population.
"Laid-back"' is one of those dreadful words that wormed its way from early drug-culture roots into the vernacular. "Turned-on," thank heavens, has passed on, but laid-back has survived even into psychobabble. The word conjures up images of someone who is obviously uninvolved, probably uncaring, presumably brainless, certainly blasè and hopelessly passive. And, if we are to believe what we read and hear, it applies willy-nilly to all Californians. That's a tall order for any adjective. I can think of any number of Californians who would not fit comfortably under that all-encompassing umbrella. Is Billy Martin laid-back? Or Ted Williams? Billie Jean King? O.J. Simpson? I could go on.
California has probably spawned more outstanding baseball, football, tennis and track athletes than any other state. Yet it wasn't that long ago that an otherwise distinguished New York newspaper columnist suggested that NFL teams quartered in California could never muster the drive to win a Super Bowl. The lifestyle was, yes, just too laid-back, the living too easy. Well, if memory serves, four of the last seven Super Bowls have been won by California teams, two of them by the Raiders, the meanest team in the NFL.
A record not likely to be broken is the seven straight NCAA championships set by John Wooden's UCLA teams of the '60s and early '70s. The L.A. Lakers have already won three NBA championships in the '80s. The Dodgers haven't done all that badly since they moved west 29 years ago. Nobody would call any of those driven teams laid-back. And need I remind you that another of America's new sporting heroes, Dennis Conner, a San Diego lad, is about as laid-back on the high seas as Bull Halsey. I will note only in passing what has happened in the past two decades in the Rose Bowl, an annual confrontation between the supposedly laid-back and the down-and-dirty.
Mention California to an easterner, and he will speak of beaches and tans and kookiness and the laid-back life-style. What he's talking about, of course, is Southern California, and not even all of that. In those everproliferating beach towns south of L.A., there is, in part, a laid-back life-style, but it is pursued by such a tiny minority of Californians that you have to wonder how so few got so much p.r. What gets overlooked is that California is the nation's most populous state and easily the most diverse topographically and meteorologically.
California is really about six states. There is metropolitan Los Angeles, which is bigger than most actual states. And the state south of L.A., which encompasses Orange County and the beach and desert towns down to San Diego. Then there's central California, the nation's most productive farming region, where beaches are nonexistent. The San Francisco Bay Area (toss in the wine country here) is about as different from Southern California as New England is from Florida. There are ministates to the north, along the spectacularly rugged coastline and to the east in the Sierra Nevada.
Call a raisin farmer from Fresno or a sheep rancher from Mendocino laid-back, and you will get a look that would wither a redwood. And I seriously doubt whether you can consider Watts or West Oakland sanctuaries for the mellow.
The fact is, I see more laid-back-looking people outside of California than I do in it. Walk down Fifth Avenue in New York or Rush Street in Chicago and you'll find more people dressed in what is supposed to be the casual California style than you'll ever see on Post or Montgomery Street in my town, San Francisco. As far as I, a native Californian, am concerned, there has never been a true California life-style. But if I'm wrong, and some enterprising social scientist comes up with something all the people who live in this big state have in common, I feel certain it won't be that we're all, heaven help us, laid-back. I'd rather be laid out than hear that.