Letter from California

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

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Letter from California-January 11, 2004

Do you remember the character Woody from the old show, Cheers? In the show, he moved to Boston from Indiana and struggled to keep up with the city slickers that showed up in the bar, but he always made it through with his Middle America manners and humility. The role launched the career of Woody Harrelson, who of course has gone on to become something of a city slicker himself. He’s a fixture in Hollywood, as well as becoming the poster child for the legalization of marijuana. He’s a good friend of marijuana “activist” Todd MacCormick, who famously transformed his Bel-Air mansion into a “marijuana research facility.” I knew some guys who tried to use that excuse about their dorm room back in college.

Harrelson believes that marijuana should be decriminalized. He makes the point that simple possession of marijuana shouldn’t be treated with the same seriousness as crimes like theft or assault. He also strongly supports hemp for use in producing paper and other products and the medical use of marijuana for what ails ye. You may not agree, but these are generally reasonable arguments, and so, being a Hollywood star, Harrelson felt that it was his duty to make certain to add some idiotic stuff to the mix. For example, did you know that you aren’t “genuinely free”? That’s right. As an American, you’re not really free because you can’t “self-medicate” with a marijuana joint when you feel a little cold coming on. Harrelson is “deeply ashamed” of his country’s government for this. I think he’s a little out of whack. I mean, where else could a dopey small town boy grow up to be rich enough to help turn a Bel-Air Mansion into a marijuana research facility. I’m not sure it’s what the founding fathers had in mind, but it sounds like something only free people would be able to do.

Speaking of freedom and marijuana, there’s more ballot box fun on the horizon in the Golden State. In the next few weeks, voters in Mendocino County, in the north of the state, will vote on a ballot measure to ban Genetically Modified foods, or GMOs. As you probably know, GMOs are foods that are engineered with advanced biotechnologies to be more resistant to pests, easier to grow, more productive per acre, and of course more profitable to those who grow them. For example, a genetically modified corn might be more resistant to pests and need less pesticide. This translates into a smaller impact on the environment, less contamination in food and a lower cost to the farmer. Sounds good, right? Opponents would agree that GMOs have substantial benefits, but they would go on to say that the dangers of GMOs far outweigh them. GMOs, being created artificially, can have untold effects on the human body, and because they can be made heartier than their natural cousins, such plants could end up wiping out the natural variety. Though no negative health outcomes from GMOs have ever been officially reported, it’s logical to see that they could. Is Mendocino County right to be concerned about the menace in their midst?

Well, maybe, but not at the moment. It seems that no genetically modified growing goes on in Mendocino County, so the ballot measure, if passed, would basically keep it that way. What does grow in Mendocino, however, is marijuana. In fact, it’s considered the County’s number one crop. Official numbers don’t exist of course, but most concede that wine grapes, the top legal crop, can’t hold a burning incense stick to marijuana when you’re talking dollars flowing into Mendocino.

It’s not just people with a couple of marijuana plants in their backyard here either. The County is rife with commercial-grade operations under armed guard growing the stuff. A couple years ago, the sheriff’s department did a massive sweep to get rid of it, during which time Sheriff Rusty Noe grew frustrated. “It’s growing everywhere,” he said, “we couldn’t possibly get rid of all of it.” In fact, back in 2000, Mendocino legalized marijuana for personal possession. Get Woody on the phone! I’ve got a vacation spot for him, where he can be genuinely free.

So what’s the connection between opposing GMOs and supporting legal weed? It’s complicated, I’m sure. Some people, right or wrong, do feel that GMOs pose a hazard to their health. Others think maybe the County’s legal agricultural products will be more attractive to outside buyers if they’re guaranteed not to be Franken-fruit. It could be simply that these two ideas both generally fit into the nature-loving hippie philosophy many Mendocino residents hold to.

Perhaps it’s something else. It turns out GMOs cost money to develop, which puts them beyond the reach of many small farmers. Could an outsider with GMO-improved products move into Mendocino’s emerald land and put the pinch on the locals? Not if this ballot move passes, which it will. The marijuana law allows up to 25 plants for “personal use,” but even if Woody Harrelson and Snoop Doggy Dogg roomed together, they wouldn’t go through that much. The real story there is that in addition to the big marijuana farms, there are plenty of people who grow their “personal” stash so they can sell it. The 2000 law makes it semi-legal.

So maybe the gentle folk of Mendocino are going to the polls to bring to life their commitment to the Woody Harrelson image of paradise. Or could it be they prefer to be “genuinely free” to make as much money as they can without a hassle from The Man or pesky outsiders with a better, cheaper product?

I’m deeply ashamed.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Letter from California-January 4, 2004

Once you’ve lived in California for a while, you’re supposed to be nonchalant when you see somebody famous. If you see Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life at your neighborhood Macy’s, you’re not supposed to run screaming across the store saying, “Jo snuck out of her room every night and you never knew!” I admit, though, I still find it a thrill to bump into the famous. A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with a friend and stood up to find the restroom only to see Kevin Costner at the table next to me. I managed to resist the urge to point and say, “Hey, you’re Kevin Costner!” but just barely.

So there you have it. I’m not as cool as people think because I like being in a place where the well-known do their thing. It may not be there anymore, but years ago, there was a building in Columbia, South Carolina with a mural showing the giant painted face of George Rogers, the Heisman-Trophy winning Gamecock football player. As a kid, I got the same kind of small thrill just driving by that wall, thinking that the best college football player in the country probably lived there, played there, and maybe sometimes brought a lawn chair out to that parking lot and stared at that wall while drinking a pina colada. I’ve always liked to be around people who’ve done big things.

As big things go, curing polio is way up there. Polio used to be quite a problem, permanently crippling millions all over the world until Jonas Salk came along. He developed the vaccine that wiped the disease off the map. I’d say that beats Rogers’ Heisman and Facts of Life put together. The Salk Institute, founded by the man himself and now doing work on everything from AIDS to cancer to genetic engineering, graces the town of La Jolla, California, just north of San Diego. While bumping into Crash Davis at a pasta joint is cool, being around people like this isn’t too bad either.

Some of my fellows Californians apparently don’t feel the same way. Led by an actor, a group called Last Chance for Animals, wants to see the Salk Institute stripped of as much grant money as possible. They oppose the use of animals for experimentation and want the Salk Institute to pay for its practices right in the pocketbook. Last Chance for Animals wants to stop the Salk’s research as a way to protest its mistreatment of animals.

One small problem: no one knows what any of these acts of mistreatment are supposed to be.

Not letting the facts get in the way of their outrage, the brave souls of Last Chance for Animals, have offered a $10,000 reward for anyone who can provide them with evidence that the Salk Institute has mistreated animals, as long as that information leads to the Salk Institute losing grant money. Apparently, they got an “anonymous tip” that the Salk was abusing animals. Chris De Rose, the leader and founder of the group, feels that research can always be done without animals as test subjects. He and his group feel that organizations like the Salk use animals to develop drugs because they are cruel and not smart enough to know all these “alternative methods” of testing without animals. De Rose, a long-time Hollywood denizen, apparently learned these methods during the making of the three B-movies on his resume whereas the 900 scientists on the Salk’s staff all happened to miss those days in graduate school. Maybe they were having pina coladas with George Rogers or something.

So let’s review: D-list actor starts an organization that tells scientists who cure worldwide diseases that they don’t know how to do research and accuses them of mistreating animals. Then they offer a reward if anyone happens to know if those same scientists mistreat animals. That seems a little backwards to me. It’s more traditional to accuse someone of wrongdoing after you know what it is. Old-fashioned, I know.

Is it possible that the Salk Institute is abusing animals? Sure, it is. Staffed by human beings, the Salk could be committing any number of dark deeds. Instead of curing diseases, they could be developing a horrible virus that turns otherwise normal people into huge Celine Dion fans. What a nightmare for humanity that would be! Seriously, though, if the Salk is doing something wrong, it should stop. No one wants cruelty to animals, but that doesn’t have to come at the price of stopping good research. If the polio research had been stopped, a half a million people a year would be permanently and painfully crippled. Somehow that doesn’t seem to register with De Rose, who compares his strategy to those “employed by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.”

That’s a lot to live up to for anybody. Maybe De Rose ought to start a little lower with his role models. Kevin Costner comes to mind.
Letter from California-December 30, 2003

Sometimes around the New Year, I get envious of people in places like New York, where these tremendous gatherings suddenly seem to develop out of nowhere. Back east, it seems that every medium-sized city has some gathering place where the throng gathers to watch the giant crystal ball drop or the giant crystal panda climb down the vine or the giant crystal Baby New Year replace the wizened, hunched-over Old Year.

Los Angeles, you see, really doesn’t have any such place. On New Year’s Eve, there’s no place to party much bigger than a bar or restaurant, and if you’re looking for a confetti-strewn blowout, you’re probably going to have to settle for New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Dick Clark. How could this be? After all, as the home of the entertainment business, L.A. certainly has its share of partygoers and party givers. Somehow, though, we can’t manage to get more than a few hundred of them in any one place, and I have a few theories about why.

It already feels like the New Year at 9:00 PM. We know it, you know it. The New Year comes to America when it comes to the East Coast. I have friends who celebrate the East Coast New Year and then go to sleep. Of course, it’s only 9 in the evening here when that happens, and it gets difficult to get people excited about keeping the party going for a long time after that. What’s worse is that at 12 o’clock here, they don’t even make a pretense of showing a live countdown. They just replay the Times Square countdown timed to midnight Pacific Time. Imagine our excitement.

We’re getting up early to see the Rose Parade. Bright and early, the Rose Parade here in Pasadena kicks off and about a half a million people line up along a five-mile stretch of Colorado Boulevard to watch the floats. Yes, in a way, this is LA’s version of the major New Year’s blowout, but the hundreds of thousands here are spread out over a long distance and can’t see more than the few people sleeping on the sidewalk on either side of them. Since every inch of street-front sidewalk is like gold to get the best views of the parade, nobody dares to move far enough for their treasured spot to party.

No one knows where downtown is. As a rule, most people look for tall buildings and assume that somewhere in that general area is where the people are. We do have a fair number of skyscrapers and they are in a part of town called “Downtown,” but what’s strange is that almost nothing happens there. During the business day, it’s bustling. People pour in for work, making it possible for all kinds of restaurants and other service industries to thrive, but when the whistle sounds at 5 or 6 o’clock, it’s spooky how quiet it gets. A few years back, I was working on a project with some partners whose office was in one of those skyscrapers, and we worked right through quitting time and on to dinnertime. We still needed to get a little more done, so we decided to go get something to eat. I left the building in search of some Chinese take-out and walked several city blocks without seeing another person. Weird.

It’s tough to park a half million cars in one place. LA is famous for its cars and the unfortunate fact that it’s the kind of big city that you really need a car to get around. Sure, public transportation is available in theory, but after taking the 26 Bus to the Gold line to the Red Line to the 350 Bus to the Rickshaw to the Covered Wagon, it would take almost as long to get to the airport as it would to get to the East Coast. So unlike New York, where the millions take the train in from the ‘burbs to Times Square, or like, say, Columbia, South Carolina where you’d have plenty of places to park the many who came, most Angelenos first question is often, “Where will I park?” If it’s too much hassle, forget it.

Celebratory gunfire. For some reason, there are people here who think the perfect way to mark a festive occasion is with several rounds from a pistol fired into the air. Right around midnight on New Years, if you listen quietly, you can usually hear a few of these crackling in the distance. Hopefully, they’re in the distance. The problem with those party bullets, of course, is that they come down. Not great for a big crowd scene.

So there you have my theories. You can mix and match your favorites. On Wednesday night, I’ll be somewhere with a few friends, quietly sipping a drink, watching the party in Times Square. Twice.