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Seeking the Soul of Marin

John Walker Lindh Has Added to the Region's Reputation as a Place Where Anything Goes. But Does California's Richest County Deserve Its 'Hottubistan' Label?

July 14, 2002|SCOTT HARRIS

Tim the Hot Tub Repairman, a bit disoriented, shifts into park and studies his map book. He is searching for an address in Novato, a middle-class burg about 25 miles north of San Francisco. He swings a U-turn and pulls up to a house that looks glum, its yard unkempt.

Your correspondent is tagging along in search of the Marin County of legend. Tracking a hot tub repairman seems a logical first step.

This stop, however, feels like a detour.

The unsmiling woman who answers the door may own a hot tub, but otherwise nothing here says Marin. There is no way this woman was ever a flower child or a yuppie, contrary species that somehow achieved harmonic convergence in this mythic place. She has a big-screen TV in the living room and a son named Bobby with an Eminem poster on his bedroom wall.

Bobby looks about the same age as a certain Marin lad who recently worked as a Taliban warrior. He leads Tim out back to the ailing spa while his mother considers a question.

Yeah, sure, she knows how outsiders see Marin.

"Hot tubs and peacock feathers and cocaine," she snarls. "And we're all rich."

And so what do you think?

"Bull!"

If some Marinites seem touchy these days, Tim offers a defense. "They're nice people, real nice," he says of his clients. After Sept. 11, he adds, he saw Old Glory all over the Northern California county, more so than up in Santa Rosa, where he lives. That said, Marin will never be confused with Middle America, especially now that John Walker Lindh has added to its legend. Once the world learned that the "American Taliban" began his strange odyssey in Marin, notorious for its do-your-own-thing ethos, many people thought: "Aha, it figures."

Lindh "was prepared for this seduction not just by the wispy relativism of Marin County," Hoover Institution scholar Shelby Steele wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "but also by a much broader post-'60s cultural liberalism that gave his every step toward treason a feel of authenticity and authority." Steele described Marin as a place "where all the cliche obsessions of shallow California . . . flourish without irony."

Allusions to Marin's culpability, or lack thereof, have been a staple of many articles and commentaries concerning Lindh. The online journal Salon offered the headline: "Insta-Traitor: Just add hot-tub water and stir." The razzing reached a presidential level when former President George Bush piled on, describing Lindh in an interview as "some misguided Marin County hot-tubber."

But do these words reflect reality?

There's no question that Marin is a touchy-feely, target-rich environment. Where else have nature, spirituality, wealth and politics blended in such a frothy organic frappe? Consider: Early this year, opponents of a Sausalito bond measure for a new police and fire station were victorious at the polls after citing faulty feng shui, among other things. (Traffic was another concern, but that's not what made it a Marin story.) Or this: Marin's hottest new restaurant is an elegantly appointed vegan place called Roxanne's, with no ovens or grills and specializing in "raw food cuisine." (With wine and tip, figure $100 for dinner for two; reservations are strongly recommended.)

Romantics see in Marin a storybook enchantment, blessed by the eternal. Rising between ocean and bay, it's an emerald terrain of mountain and valley, forest and meadow, kissed by a cool, wafting mist. The standard threshold to this realm is the Golden Gate Bridge, in all its grace and glory. Your correspondent opted for the side door, arriving via the utilitarian Richmond-San Rafael Bridge on a showery morning-and was greeted by sudden shafts of sunlight and a rainbow.

The land's beauty has always cried out for protection and attracted free spirits who have delighted in sensual pleasures and embraced a back-to-nature lifestyle. And so it was in the 1960s that Marin gave birth to a custom in which celebrants shed clothing and soak together in steamy water in redwood tubs.

The overheated, touchy-feely lifestyle was served up in Cyra McFadden's "The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County," the bestselling 1977 novel that introduced the region's mystical yet materialistic manners to the American public. McFadden's deadpan parody delighted readers when it first appeared in installments in Marin's weekly Pacific Sun. If not recognizing themselves, they certainly recognized neighbors.

Marin was not delighted, however, when NBC aired a documentary in 1978 titled "I Want It All Now," which, as Pacific Sun publisher Steve McNamara later described it, "made it appear that Marin was largely populated by loathsome brats of all ages who lounged in hot tubs and stroked each other with peacock feathers."

The Sun did an expose on the expose, branding it a "docudrama" with staged scenes. A media watchdog group censured the show as "journalistically flawed at essential points," but Marin's legend was secured.

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