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California, Land of Hyperreality
Mar 18, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

As I write this I'm sitting in the kitchen of a rented house, overlooking the vast blue expanse of Lake Tahoe, made more dramatic by the snow-capped mountains which ring the shore. Three hundred and sixty degrees of pure vastness; overwhelming beauty.

California is like this. Overwhelming.

Friday morning we leave early, a 6:30 a.m. ride out of San Francisco. We cross the Bay Bridge, past the vertical towers of downtown, punctuated by a pyramid. When we hit the other side, we marvel at the early rush hour traffic headed into the city. "The metering lights are on," says the radio, and we stare at the lines and lines of cars, waiting their turn. Being a city dweller, I am removed from the ritual of the morning commute.

A four hour drive, climbing up into the Sierras. As the altitude gets higher, the temperature drops; eventually we see snow. The view becomes magnificient; white peaks, grey mountain faces, acre upon acre of pine trees. It's astounding, this state I live in.

Into Squaw Valley, and I strap on a snowboard for the first time. I'm 27 years old, and I can't remember the last time I learned a new sport. It's exhilarating, but frustrating. Falling hurts, but the feeling of making a true ess curve on the board is worth all the pain. Going up the chairlift I look for talented snowboarders; to see "how it's done." To marvel in the grace of a clean turn across the fall-line.

Friday night we cross the state line and drive into Reno. Coming down out of the mountains we see the orange glow, the bright lights, the neon. We hit a few casinos. It's my first time. And though I know, instinctively, that this isn't anything close to Vegas, it is still overwhelming.

We pay $13 for an all-you-can-eat buffet. Piles of shrimp cocktail. Unending bowls of caesar salad. Chicken breasts. Lamb. Pork chops. Cherry pie. Cheesecake. Meatloaf. Crab salad. Roast beef. And you can gamble while you eat, of course, because an unending game of Keno runs in the dining room.

I play the nickel slots, and find a rhythm in feeding the machine my money. Every seven seconds or so, another nickel. Cha ching. Cha ching. Cha ching. I hit on some, and then a few minutes will go by without hitting. I run out of nickels, and take a walk around. I watch a woman smoke a long brown cigarette and feed the dollar slots at the same rate I fed the nickels. Every seven seconds, another dollar. A woman in a polyester tuxedo brings me a free beer. I watch the blackjack table, amazed by the fluid motions of the dealer, the constant banter, the pure green felt. Craps is too complicated; it takes four employees to work the table. All to roll the dice. Roulette spins, red and black, and in the two rounds I watched everyone lost.

After a while the constant noise of the machines blends into itself. The neon lights overwhelm. And I realize that the casino shares the same hyperreality with the beauty of the lake and its surrounding mountains. And the grace of a talented snowboarder. And the pyramid that juts out of the financial district in San Francisco. And the traffic that clogs the bridges at 6:45 in the morning. They all induce sensory overload; they all overwhelm.

California is like this.

The web, thank God, is not. Yes, we have our HotWireds, our Urban Desires, our Words, and our outsiders. And when you're sitting in front of your monitor, mouse in hand, I guess you can consider those sites overwhelming. But, of course, nothing can compare to the dizzying display of casino neon, the wild beauty of the Sierras, the physical rush and mental fear of hurtling yourself down a hill on a board for the first time.

There is no such thing as hyperreality on the web.

P.S. Recommended reading: Umberto Eco's essay "Travels in Hyperreality." It's all about the overwhelming nature of California. Frightening reading. But in a good way.



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