Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Letter from California-November 25, 2003

Another big story broke in California this week, immediately hitting the top of the world news, and I briefly considered writing about it. About 4 seconds later, I concluded that there was nothing fun or entertaining about the sad carnival taking place in Never Land right now, and so we won’t be talking about it here. You have my personal guarantee on that.

Instead, I thought I’d tell a story about how different two lives can be when they are separated by 30 years and 3000 miles, and I’ve also got a little bit of Hollywood insider information about a rising star that I predict you’ll see in a TV sitcom near you sometime soon.

My son’s grandmother flew to LAX last weekend to be in attendance at the Grandparents’ Day festivities at his Kindergarten, and it spurred some thinking by me about the differences between my own elementary school days in Sumter in the ‘70s and my son’s in Los Angeles in the ‘00s. It was the perfect time to watch a Carolina grandma with the California grandkids.

Coincidentally, I went to see a comedian named Craig Shoemaker, who lives in L.A., sometimes appears on Hollywood Squares, and wrote a children’s book called What You Have Now, What Daddy Had Then. In this picture book, one page has a color cartoon picture of his own California child and a caption like “You have sushi.” On the facing page, there is a black and white cartoon drawing of himself as a child with a caption like “Daddy had fish sticks.” The whole book is a series of comparisons of his own life as a kid and that of his child.

The visit from my mother gave me a chance to do my own comparisons like those in the book, and it starts with the visit itself. My mother and I were on the phone about two weeks ago, lamenting that she wouldn’t be able to be here for the Grandparents’ Day activities. For kicks, I decided to see what kind of last minute fare I could pull together on the Internet, and after a few minutes work, we found an obscenely low price on a flight, bought an e-ticket with a credit card, and three days later, she was on a plane.

You have last-minute e-tickets that cost about the same as a nice dinner for two with wine in Beverly Hills. Daddy had paper tickets bought two months in advance that cost a month’s salary.

I went to public Sumter Schools (District 2), where the teachers and administrators of the time did a very fine job of educating and training us to be good citizens, despite the lack of resources and facilities. Sure, they didn’t have to contend with guns, cell phones, or Britney-inspired standards of dress, but between dodging our spitballs and fanning themselves in the heat of our non-air conditioned classrooms, they did a job, in my opinion, that many of today’s California public schools would envy.

In fact, the public schools in our own little corner of California fall so short of that standard that many seek refuge in the private schools, some of which are truly excellent. My son goes to one of those, and my mother’s reaction on seeing it was, like mine, quite awe-struck. “I’ve paid $250 a night to stay in places like this,” were the words I used.

You have a staff of experts with every educational resource at their fingertips and a comfortable environment. Daddy had good people who understood that solid teaching and passion could overcome a lack of flag football equipment and a computer lab that could coordinate a moon launch.

On Grandparents’ Day, my mother was asked again and again whether she was another relative standing in for a grandparent. So many Californians are having children later in life that the average parent of the Kindergartners in my son’s class is between 35 and 40 years old. I had college loans by the time my mother was that age.

You have a grandmother that your friends think is your mother. Daddy had a mother that people thought was his older sister.

My son sat with his grandmother at a picnic table in the autumn California sun, eating ham sandwiches, looking at his drawing of himself flying a kite with his grandmother, and the place where you keep your pencils, erasers, and glue in your classroom. They spent the whole day there, talking to the teachers, the other students and their grandparents. As a result my son came away knowing that his grandmother, just like the grandparents of his classmates, cared about his education and about him.

You have…well, pretty much the same stuff Daddy had. When it comes to the important things, anyway.

Thanks, Craig Shoemaker. I hope you get that sitcom and become a huge star, in part because you’re a very funny guy and in part because the world could use another highly visible Hollywood parent with an obvious love for his children.

And that’s more important than whether they get 100% fresh fruit smoothies or ice cold Tang.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Letter from California-November 18, 2003

Just a few weeks ago, California’s display of direct democracy in removing Gray Davis from office kept the world watching the news from the Golden State and launched this column. Little did I know that we would have another great example to talk about even before Schwarzenegger took the oath of office.

Last week, the small town of Bolinas, California went to the polls, and among the issues the voters decided was Measure G or the “Bolinas Socially Acknowledged Nature Loving Town” measure. As you may know, California has a very strong tradition of ballot propositions, where the voters make decisions about important policy at the polls. Every election day, California voters get to decide how the state will handle important issues like immigration, taxation, and higher education. Despite this long history, I feel comfortable in saying there’s never been a decision quite like the one faced by the 915 registered voters of the town of Bolinas this week.

Picture yourself closing the voting curtain behind you and facing this question, which I have included (no kidding) exactly as it was on the ballot in Bolinas:

Shall the following language constitute a policy of the Bolinas Community Public Utility District? Vote for Bolinas to be a socially acknowledged nature-loving town because to like to drink the water out of the lakes to like to eat the blueberries to like the bears is not hatred to hotels and motor boats. Dakar. Temporary and way to save life, skunks and foxes (airplanes to go over the ocean) and to make it beautiful.

Gosh, where to start? Let’s start with the results: by a vote of 314 to 152, the people of Bolinas voted “Yes” on G. A landslide! A tremendous victory for, well, no one really seems to know. What we do know is that the Measure was written and proposed by a homeless woman who wanders the 1 square mile town of Bolinas wearing a hat made of bark and who, as a practice, smears chocolate on her face.

Check the calendar. This isn’t an April Fool’s joke. (By the way, when April comes, don’t say I didn’t give you a warning.) I’m not sure anyone could have planned a gag this weird if they were trying. I’ve taken the time to read through the Measure a few times, and for a couple lines, I can pretty much walk the crazy, granola-covered path it’s taking. It sounds like the work of a gentle-hearted hippie with a love for water, blueberries and bears.

Then it dawned on me that rather than just being some meaningless, nicely crafted, and well-intentioned sentiment, it was actually a meaningless and insane sentiment whose intentions probably weren’t even fully understood to the woman who wrote it. I particularly like the part where it suddenly just says “Dakar”. I did a little digging and found out that Dakar is the name that ol’ chocolate face/bark hat is known by around town. I suppose she just thought it was important that she get some credit for her work. Who can blame her?

I’ve never actually been to Bolinas, but I’ve been nearby. In fact, I spent a full day driving all over the area a few years back, and I saw no evidence of the place. In researching this story, I found out why. It seems the 1200 or so people of the town are constantly fighting the Department of Motor Vehicles to keep their town off official maps, and every time the DMV puts up road signs pointing to Bolinas, the townsfolk get together and tear them down. A socially acknowledged nature-loving town they may be, but don’t drop in uninvited. I guess hospitality’s not their thing.

On the other hand, there’s probably nothing scary about the place. Sure, there could be a lot of potential explanations for a Measure like this actually becoming a law. There’s the back-to-nature urge that drives some Californians to seek a simpler life. It could be the result of a small town struggling to retain its identity in the face of the sprawling San Francisco metropolis. It could also be the heart-felt expression of someone at the bottom of society and the sympathy of a tight-knit little community. On the other hand, maybe the people of Bolinas just go for the wacky tobacky a little more than most. If forced to wager, I’d probably put my money on that last one.

Best not to think about it much, I guess. The whole story just re-affirms my long-standing belief that to like the bears is not hatred to hotels and motorboats.

Whatever that means.
Letter from California-November 11, 2003

From fruit smoothies to goat cheese to organic jalapenos, food gives California a big part of its distinct identity. If you’ve visited, you have probably noticed this. Maybe you ordered a pizza in a restaurant and had to answer three questions for the waiter just to choose the type of crust you wanted. Maybe you were visiting friends or relatives and they offered to steam the milk in your after-dinner coffee. Perhaps you pulled into a roadside diner on a back road somewhere and the special of the day was a Poblano pepper stuffed with cream cheese and bay shrimp. I apologize on behalf of us all for the fuss. I think, though, that all this has to do with the variety and abundance of food that’s grown here combined with the creativity and general hedonism of Californians themselves. As a state, we’re really into food.

About a month ago, the United Food and Commercial Workers union (the union representing grocery store employees) went on strike against the three biggest grocery store chains in Southern California. Suddenly, if you needed to drop in on the way home and pick up a gallon of milk and some fresh bok choy, you had to brave a small army of people carrying picket signs or do without. For most, this means that grocery shopping has become a real problem. Some neighborhoods don’t have a grocery store that’s not surrounded by the formerly friendly faces of the UFCW’s workers, and of course, many people support or at least respect the picket line. So customers are forced to do something else to put food on the table, and while corn dogs and nachos might be a great meal at a ball game, it’s hard to feed a family nutritious, affordable food when all your shopping is done at 7-11.

So how did the fun get started? Who’s to blame for the culinary deprivation? I wouldn’t presume to place blame, but you might want to know a few useful basics. The workers of the UFCW, even they would acknowledge, have a pretty sweet deal. More senior grocery workers make about $20 an hour with a strong benefits program, including health insurance for which they don’t pay anything. According to the Sacramento Bee, most members of the union make about $20,000 in a part-time role and more than $30,000 for full-time work. This is in comparison to grocery workers in other places, including the increasing number of Wal-Marts that sell groceries, where workers make more like $8-10 an hour and don’t have nearly the same generous benefit package.

On the other hand, what the management of these grocery chains has proposed would put an end to the salad days for these workers. They want some key concessions from the union, including a $5-$15 a week contribution to health insurance by current employees and a lower pay scale for new employees. Eventually, this can only lead to making a career as a bag boy a less attractive option. Management says costs for providing health care have doubled, and they don’t have much flexibility on the issue if they are to remain competitive.

What’s interesting is that the UFCW employees tend to stay put. For some reason, the nametags for these employees all seem to mention the number of years each employee has been serving me. For example: “Robert, Shift Manager, Serving You for 16 Years.” I can hardly remember seeing one of these tags with a number that wasn’t in the double digits, and often, they’re more than 20. (Of course, the tags the replacement workers are wearing now just say “Robert” and do not mention that Robert has been “serving you since last Wednesday.”) This must be a sign that people like these jobs, though it translates to a salary of $6-9K a year in South Carolina, hardly a “bastion of middle class incomes” as the Bee characterized it.

No one seems to know where this is going, but you can tell consumers’ patience is running out, as the parking lots in front of the stores slowly get fuller as the weeks go on. Everyone has the right to fight for higher pay or better benefits. That’s the free market. Sometimes, however, these arguments come down to a question of “my money or your money” and eventually someone gives in. It’s tough not to snicker at the “Stop Corporate Greed” signs being carried by the grocery workers, when 20 feet away their comrades are grilling a nice looking piece of meat on a hibachi in the warm autumn California sun. Only here can you fight the evil of Big Business and have a rockin’ barbeque at the same time! I’m comfortable in saying that the Birmingham protestors of the Civil Rights Era, these people are not. With workers already leaving the picket lines at one of the three chains affected and a federal mediator stepping in this week, an end may be in sight.

So I predict that in a few weeks, the competent hands of the professional grocers will be bagging up plenty of spicy mango salsa and shark steaks to their once again happy customers.

Just in time for Christmas dinner.

Monday, November 03, 2003

Letter from California-November 4, 2003

Josef Stalin once said, “one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.” Numbers can be a little numbing, but I’ll put one out there anyway: since a week before last Friday, 750,000 acres in Southern California have gone up in flames. For reference, that’s more area than Sumter and Lee counties put together. That’s what is technically known, I think, as a Really Big Fire.

Thanks to some good old-fashioned heroism from firefighters around the region and a change from 105 degrees and bone dry to 2 straight days of rain and cold, the fires are almost completely out. In response, runway models, aerospace engineers, software designers, coffee bar baristas, movie extras, and factory workers across the region have offered up thanks to the Almighty, even the ones that haven’t seen the inside of a church in years or ever. The timely rain and snow has put an end to a week of second hand smoking a forest the size of a small Eastern state.

Yet as united we are in gratitude for the end of the fires, the embers of political battle are glowing. Part of the reason, some say, that these fires burned so quickly and grew so big is that we have greater “tree density” in our urban forests now than at any time in the recorded past. With more trees per square foot, and by the way, more people living next to that forest, forest fires will tend to be bigger events. Fires feed on fuel, and the mountains of Southern California have apparently become so heavily forested in recent years that it made what would have been simply a Pretty Big Fire and turned it, alas, into a Really Big Fire.

Some are charging now that political correctness has caused our forests not to be thinned of their excess trees, causing what we saw last week. To be sure, California is the home of a significant “Trees good, people bad” movement. Probably the most famous recent episode is the two-year “tree-sitting” of Julia “Butterfly” Hill, a woman who built a small treehouse in a redwood up in Northern California that was due to be cut down. She went up into the tree to save it from the chainsaws, and ended up making it her home for more than 700 days. She said, “I know that to some people, I’m just a dirty, tree-loving hippie, but I just don’t see how you could take a chainsaw to this,” referring to the tree that she had named Luna.

California Redwoods, if you’ve never seen one, make a strong argument in favor of a Creator. They are beautiful and majestic, and when you consider that some of them are more than 3000 years old, you really can start thinking about what a mess that we humans have made of nature with our desire for 4 bedrooms and a bonus room with views overlooking the water.

On the other hand, you can hardly begrudge someone for wanting to stop his or her home from going up in a big fireball and burning the Little League trophies and heirloom china. What’s the point, after all, of saving trees if by saving them you are dooming not only the forest’s human neighbors, but also the trees themselves to destruction?

The issue is simply this: either tree thinning will or will not make it less likely that forest fires will spread and cause more damage to trees and people. If it is a helpful policy, then trees and people benefit directly because the forests don’t burn down. If it’s not a helpful policy, then trees are cut down unnecessarily and logging companies make out at the expense of the trees. It seems like everyone should be in favor of tree thinning if it’s beneficial, but they aren’t. By the same token, some don’t want the facts about tree thinning and just want to blame the “environmentalists” for the fires.

After the bitterness of the Recall election and the general nastiness of the political atmosphere in the country today, I’d like to suggest that we have a chance here to establish a new way of dealing with things that affect us all in the same way. It sounds crazy, but I’m going to put it out there. I hope it doesn’t freak out the political partisans too much.

Let’s do the thing that works best and not worry about who gets blamed for what happened.

It’s radical, I know, but let’s give it a shot. In a week that started with triple-digit heat and ended in snow and saw Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger working side by side and paying each other compliments, maybe there’s something unusual in the air.

Other than all the warm gray ash, of course.

By the way, if you’d like to support the fire victims financially, you can do that by going to www.kabc.com, where you can learn about Operation Lend-A-Hand that is rounding up supplies and cash for the many who lost homes and loved ones in the fire.
Letter from California-October 25, 2003

Ah, fall! In the much of the country, the leaves on the trees are putting on their dramatic color show to the delight of picnickers and tree freaks. Further south, there’s a crispness that’s slowly starting to wash away the last of the harshness of summer. Way up in New England, there might even be a light dusting of snow around now, and families will be gathering around a first autumn fireplace.

Here in Southern California, we have a weather pattern marking this time of year too. It involves a light dusting of ash and a metropolis of 10 million gathered around a first autumn forest fire. Yes, it is fire season again, the hallmark of summer’s end, and a chance to reflect on Californians and their too-cool-to-worry attitude toward danger.

First, the facts. You might have heard of the various forest fires that started last Friday. At this writing, they’ve burned about 280,000 acres of the San Bernardino National Forest and other places as well as a few hundred homes. Yeah, yeah, you’ve read things like this a hundred times… x number of acres burning in blah-blah National Forest. Most of those fires happen in more remote locations, the vast National Forests or outback areas of Arizona or Nevada or someplace where only an unlucky handful will even come near it.

This fire, on the other hand, is basically burning at L.A.’s doorstep. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s in a National Forest. It’s in San Bernardino, a city of almost a million people that’s basically connected by urban sprawl to the City of Angels. That means about 10,000,000 people get the smoke, the smell, and the ash falling on freshly washed cars like snow’s evil twin.

Not to mention the danger of being burned up in a catastrophic fire. Yeah, there’s that too.

In fact, I drove by a separate forest fire last weekend just as it was getting started. A dark brown plume was rising from the hillside and must have gone up about 3 or 4 miles and stretched about 30 miles from end to end. I was on my way with the family to ride a vintage train to a pumpkin patch, and the flames burned about a half-mile from the freeway. We cheered the spectacular flames and congratulated ourselves on getting past the fire before they shut the highway. We thought maybe it would keep the crowds away from the train ride, which embarked only 6 or 7 miles from the fire.

No such luck. It was a full house, with the train heading right back in the direction of the fire. The conductor told us with pride that if we came in on the 126 freeway, we wouldn’t be going back that way, because the fire had jumped the road and it was now closed. Hooray for everybody on this side of the fire!

It was a little smoky and gusty, but everyone enjoyed the pumpkin patch. I suppose it’s possible that the fire could have taken a terrible turn for the worse and come sweeping across the corn field, causing us to have to beat a hasty retreat (on a train from the 1930s that maxes out at about 25 miles per hour) to escape the fire. No reason to let that stop you from enjoying a jack cheese and tri-tip sandwich while picking out an exotic variety of pumpkin for carving.

Geologists say that California was created by the violent collision of the Pacific Ocean with North America, and that the place is pretty much designed to generate fires, earthquakes, floods, and droughts. It doesn’t explain O.J., but it does say a lot about what it takes to live here.

Earthquakes, for example, can strike almost anywhere in California at anytime. Unlike hurricanes, you don’t get a week’s notice and a chance to pack a cooler full of sandwiches. It’s a little frightening if you let yourself think about it.

So, the best thing to do is to pack up a First Aid kit, a few dozen gallons of water, and a couple days worth of food, and forget about the fact that a giant fissure in the earth could appear in the middle of breakfast or that a teenager with a cherry bomb could spark a fireball big enough to swallow a city. Forget that some B-rate celebrity could get arrested for almost anything and cause traffic snarls of biblical proportions. David Cassidy, do us all a favor and keep your nose clean! We’ve got places to get to!

People deal with fear by confining it to a place where they can live with it. It’s like sending a bad kid to his room. You know he’s there, and you have to deal with him, but at least he’s not knocking over houseplants on the carpet all day. Here in California, the natural environment keeps us on our toes and occasionally, we might even worry about it.

But nothing would be less Californian than letting anyone know that. On the other hand, even a cool Californian is not too cool to say a big thank you to the very brave firefighters from all over the region for what they’re doing to beat the blaze back. Beat that fire and be safe!
Letter from California- The Quiet Power of Democracy

I walked across the hilly park across the street from my house this morning to a small building made of river rocks that was built during the depression. This is my local polling place, and today, it was busier than I’ve ever seen it. A micro traffic jam swirled around the place, and the line to check in to pick up the little paper ballot to punch was longer than usual.

Besides that, it felt the same. The same musty smell hung in the air, and I recognized the faces of some of the poll workers. I took the same archaic punch pin on a chain and made sure to avoid hanging chads. When I turned the ballot in, the poll worker handed me a little “I Voted” sticker for my lapel and stuck one on my 5-year old son’s school sweater. As always, I marveled at the mystery and glory of democracy. The people in this room, and thousands of others like it around California, were going to make an important decision today. The power was all theirs.

But tonight, as the returns came in, it felt as though something more than usual was happening. Not being a fan of Gray Davis, I had no heartbreak over seeing him leave office, but I did have some sympathy. After 20 years of public service, Gray got a pink slip from 35 million Californians, and it wasn’t even close. Worse than losing a normal election, it had to be humiliating.

As they flashed the picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger onto the screen with the words “Governor Elect” next to them, I finally got it. We, the people of California, had just done something big. Good or bad. Right or wrong. The course of the history of the state just changed at the hands of a lot of angry voters. I thought to myself as the numbers went way lopsided in Arnold’s favor that maybe this was how a peaceful revolution felt when it was happening.

It’s a little frightening when you think about that many people being so angry and not being afraid to do something about it. Californians wanted a change, right now, and they got it. It went across gender lines and ethnicity. Even a substantial percentage of Democrats voted to get rid of Davis. A lot of the opponents of the recall seemed to recognize this in the news coverage tonight. Perhaps they expected a “No” victory, but not a landslide. Art Torres, the firebrand head of the California Democratic party, congratulated Republicans and seemed very cautious in saying anything negative, bitter or angry. The voice of the people, when expressed this clearly, has a calm and menacing authority in it.

I’m optimistic about Governor Schwarzenegger. Yes, he’s an amateur politician with no experience in elected office, but, of course, he’ll have at his disposal the smartest and hardest-working experts in the world. He’s got a good track record as a successful executive, and has demonstrated that he knows how to succeed. He’s where most Californians are on social issues: in favor of abortion under some circumstances; tolerant of gays; in favor of some kinds of gun control; and not crazy about paying state taxes that makes it seem like a second country is taking its share of our income.

On the other hand, I respect those who didn’t want it to come out this way. Almost 9 out of 20 voters wanted Davis to stay, and since he hasn’t committed any crimes and was duly elected less than a year ago, that’s a reasonable position. Almost a third of us wanted the Lieutenant Governor to take his place, should the Governor be removed, and there’s a strong logic to that as well. Short of those who voted for Gary Coleman, everybody has my respect. It was a big decision, and for all the insanity, we Californians handled it with our usual fearless exuberance.

There is one other group that I can’t respect, and they are those who now wish Governor Schwarzenegger to fail. Some people are angry at the anger. They don’t think it’s fair that Davis should have had to defend himself at this point, and some of them will channel that anger into the hope that Arnold will not be able to do a good job. They hope Schwarzenegger will not rise to the challenge of office, because that will bring their political party advantage sometime down the road. I hope these people are few in number and I hope they don’t get their wish.

It is too early to say whether the outcome of this election is good crazy or bad crazy, but our nation loses when California isn’t at its best, and right now, we’re pretty far from that.

If we all work together, though, that could change, and in the words of our soon to be Governor, we’ll be back.