Letter from California

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

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Letter from California February 24, 2004

Scientists say that California’s beauty comes from the same natural forces that often make it a dangerous place to live. The old joke goes that California has four seasons: summer, mudslide, earthquake, and fire. True enough. Back at Christmas, we went from 70 degrees and sunny to rains so strong that they washed a few million tons of mud down the mountainside, burned out from last fall’s forest fires. Back in 1994, a single cigarette thrown out a car window started a fire in Malibu Canyon that frightened more movie stars than a 100% tax on plastic surgery.

But there’s a natural force even more frightening than earthquake, fires, and mud. When this force comes to the streets of L.A., citizens panic, streets are jammed, news cameras are on every corner to get the dramatic story.

That’s right. Light to moderate rain.

Oh, sure. It doesn’t sound bad to you. Growing up in the Carolinas, I got used to what Forest Gump called “big, fat rain.” As a teenager, my working theory was that as long as I could see the end of the car’s hood, I could keep driving. A few times when stuck in a big thundershower and not too far from my destination, I just looked for a fast-moving stream of water and floated on in, like coasting into a gas station on ‘E’. If water wasn’t coming through the floorboards, I figured it was probably ok to keep on truckin’.

California, particularly L.A., doesn’t really have thunderstorms. In fact, rain hardly ever falls at all between April and October. I remember when my 5-year old son, a California native, visited South Carolina in August and looked at me with puzzlement when water started falling from the sky. “Rain? In summer?” he asked.

So when it does start raining here, two things happen. First, all 2,000,000 drivers in Los Angeles go insane and crash into each other. Seriously, on the first day of rain after a dry spell, the California Highway Patrol reports that accidents more than triple. Why? Perhaps some have forgotten to allow a little extra time to brake or that you’re supposed to turn into a skid. Or turn away from a skid. I forget which one since I haven’t gotten into a skid in a while. Anyway, my other theory is that people have decided simply to drive fast so they’ll spend less time on the dangerous roads.

But don’t take my word for it; take it from an expert. According to the California Highway Patrol’s spokesman Phil Konstantin in San Diego, “there’s lots and lots of crashes.” Don’t you just hate it when public officials start using a lot of fancy jargon? Anyway, I’m sure Officer Konstantin didn’t have time for a long speech with the hundreds of extra crashes in San Diego over the weekend. “Don’t drive unless you have to,” he continued.

Did I mention we got about 2 inches of rain?

Besides the traffic accidents, the second thing that happens during rain can be described as Stormwatch ’04, depending on the year of course. The local news stations send reporters out on the streets to find out how regular people are coping with the rain or what they are going to be doing to prepare for the rain. Each station sends out 6 or 8 reporters each, so if you’re playing hooky from work or school, stay inside because the chances are good you’ll be caught on camera. They might even ask you if you know whether to turn into or away from a skid. Once I saw a reporter standing next to a trickle of water and a puddle during one of these reports and explain that “local residents are concerned” that the water might make the road dangerous. Puddlewatch ’04!

The best reports come from the places where it’s not actually raining, but it might be later. The reporter stands on the pier or the hillside or wherever, looking like they just robbed an L.L. Bean outlet, and talks about how forecasters are predicting that this locale will see some rain later in the evening. While the reporter stands there dressed like he’s about to step onto a fishing boat, someone walks by in the background wearing a t-shirt and sandals throwing a Frisbee to his dog. One day, I hope to see the reporter turn to that person and ask him if he’s done anything to “prepare” for the rain.

And he’ll say, “Yes, I bought a house.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Letter from California-February 17, 2004

I’ve noticed that some people have a thing about putting pictures of themselves and their loved ones around the house. Every square inch of empty counter space has a picture of the family waving like maniacs in front of the Grand Canyon or at least the Giant Sombrero at Pedro’s South of the Border. Somewhere among the knick-knacks, you’ll probably find a wedding photo or two. In those typically, you’ll find a smiling bride in white dancing with her new husband or the newlyweds posed together next to a picturesque oak or something.

The news here in California this week made me think of one particular picture person I know and the very unusual wedding day photo I remember seeing in his dining room a few years back. In the picture, my friend, Jeff, was standing in his wedding tux on a San Francisco trolley car next to his new partner. They both beamed. The tourists that had by chance had been riding the street car when Jeff and his partner jumped on had expressions on their faces ranging from amused to horrified. “Everyone clapped at first when they saw me jump on,” Jeff once told me, “but then they started looking for a bride.” Jeff was standing next to his partner, Jose, on the day they had exchanged their “commitment” vows, pledging to spend their lives together.

The people on the trolley had the same reaction that a lot of people do to the gay marriages happening in San Francisco right now. For many, the idea of gay marriage is strange and shocking, but in Jeff and Jose’s case, the reality is a lot more ordinary. Hilarious “wedding” photo aside, Jeff and Jose live a pretty normal life. They’re both hard-working guys who do their best to get home at a decent hour so they can have dinner together in front of this week’s elimination round of American Idol. When I knew them, they would occasionally have a few people over for dinner and, if I recall correctly, Jeff would cut loose by having a shot or two of Jaegermeister. That was about the extent of the craziness in their lives.

So when I think about the same-sex marriages happening in San Francisco this week, I have a hard time shaking the image of Jeff and Jose eating Chinese take-out food in their den. It makes me think of hearing Jeff nag Jose about not picking up the dry cleaning on the way home. Although Jeff and Jose’s “vows” didn’t really mean anything legally, they are living just as dull and domestic a life as anybody with a marriage certificate they didn’t have to print on the color laser copier down at Kinko’s.

Marriage is important. Strong families make strong societies, not the other way around, and the traditional family has created in America the strongest, healthiest nation that perhaps has ever been. Critics of gay marriage argue quite understandably that we’re messing with a winning formula if we allow the definition of marriage to blur. Many feel strongly that it’s simply immoral.

But I think maybe there’s another reason for the general feeling of creepiness that most Americans get about gay marriage. In my experience, we are “live and let live’ kind of people, so there must be something more to the fact that a majority of us don’t think that marriage between people of the same gender should be allowed.

Most people just don’t have a Jeff and Jose to think about when they consider the subject. The models they do have come instead from the contorted world of Hollywood celebrity. For many people, it’s a far less domesticated California couple that provides their only experience with gay “marriage” and that’s Ellen Degeneres and Anne Heche. Just a few years ago, this pair rose to become the media’s emblem for gay “marriage.” Perhaps unfairly, this one relationship gave most Americans their first view of a same-sex couple. A few months later and Ellen’s show is cancelled; Anne decides she wants to marry a man, then decides she’s from another planet and her name is Celestina. Then she turns up on the streets of Fresno, 200 miles from home, not knowing how she got there.

Yep, just another boring day in the land of married bliss.

Of course, people are going to form their own opinions of gay marriage. Over the weekend, a few hundred couples got married in San Francisco, with the new mayor (yes, this is San Francisco) openly breaking the California law that forbids marriage between people of the same sex. These marriages may or may not end up being valid, as the courts may determine that the mayor acted illegally. No matter what happens though, try to put aside the image of Anne Heche staggering down the street, holding up a coat hanger trying to communicate with her home planet.

And instead picture Jeff holding up a coat hanger looking for the suit jacket Jose forgot to bring home.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Letter from California-February 2, 2004

Every family has compatibility issues. From Hollywood to Myrtle Beach and everywhere in between, we all stop sometimes and ask questions about how our personalities affect the way we interact with the people in our house. It’s natural.

But when was the last time you asked how compatible you were with the house itself? That’s the key question, and here in California, there are people that can help you with that. Is your life energy draining away because the front door of your house is in a direct line with your back door? Do you fail to build up enough life energy because your hallways are long and straight? Is your bedroom positioned in such a way that you are staring into the mouth of a dragon? If you haven’t checked on the energy flows in your house lately, how do you know that your house isn’t what’s causing Junior’s As and Bs to turn into Cs and Ds? Didn’t get that promotion you expected? Maybe it’s because your head faces north while you sleep. Pointing south gives you good dreams and good energy for the next day. Or, wait, maybe it is north after all. I forget.

Obviously, I’m not the one you want helping you with such matters. It’s called Feng Shui (pronounced “fung shway”) and it’s the ancient Chinese art of channeling energy for prosperity and happiness. This practice has existed for thousands of years and is a traditional part of Chinese design and décor, but suddenly it’s everywhere. In fact, there are dozens or perhaps even hundreds of people in Los Angeles that make a living as Feng Shui consultants. They come to your home, tell you how to change it to make the energies flow better and present you with a bill. I found one named Sheila Wright, who lives here in Los Angeles. For a mere $150 an hour (minimum 2 hours), she’ll come out and tell me what parts of my house are causing me not to be able to lose that last 10 pounds (I’m guessing the general area around the refrigerator) and which parts are causing me confusion and distress (my theory: TV room during broadcasts of Star Search).

Then I read the fine print. She usually needs 3 to 4 hours in your home and then another 3 to 4 hours to write up her recommendations. That could come to $1200, and then I’d actually have to put the changes she suggested into place. I’m not saying she wouldn’t make some good recommendations, but it is a bit of a leap of faith. That’s why I thought it was interesting when State Assemblyman (yes, he’s from San Francisco) Leland Yee proposed legislation that would make it a requirement that local building codes allowed homeowners to put Feng Shui into practice. It turns out that some building codes actually make it impossible to keep yourself out of the Dragon’s mouth or downright doom you to have your chi energy sucked away like the last sweet drops of a Mango smoothie on a hot summer day. Need a south-facing door to help the buildup of positive energy as you walk through the house? The building code might not allow it.

Yee’s proposal is actually quite simple: any public buildings should be built in such a way that Feng Shui could be implemented. He’s quick to point out that it’s not going to require that Feng Shui be put in place, just that it should be ‘accommodated’. Hmmm. Local laws make it impossible for buildings to be built the way the designers would like so we need a law to say that these same laws should make it possible to make Feng Shui based changes. Maybe it’s not as simple as I initially thought. After all, if such a thing were law, couldn’t pretty much anything be chalked up to Feng Shui? Yes, I need to add a wet bar and gaming area to my office because the chi energy of work has to be balanced against the water element of a martini at around quitting time and a game of 9-ball.

I’m sure it doesn’t really work like that, but it’s not an exact science either. Recently a TV show did an expose of Feng Shui consultants and brought two of them at separate times into the same room. Each consultant made completely different recommendations and gave equally elaborate, and silly-sounding, explanations for why the sofa should face the ocean or the carpet should be purple rather than mauve.

When you get right down to it, Yee’s proposal, he admits, has less to do with actual results than the idea that Feng Shui is a “cultural expression” that should be allowed. Who can disagree with that? The traditional Chinese eye for design has a huge influence on the California of today. California, more than any place in the western world, mixes the traditions of the Far East with its Western traditions and the outcome is pretty spectacular. If you’ve ever been to San Francisco’s Chinatown for example, I think you’d agree. Not only that, but if there are ways to improve buildings that come from Feng Shui, let’s use them.

Still, making a law about it seems unnecessary. Try as I might, I can’t figure out what would actually change if the law went into place. Maybe nothing at all. On the other hand, it might prove expensive and troublesome, as the State Building Commission says. “We’re strapped for resources right now,” said Stan Nishimura, the Commission’s Executive Director. Oh, yeah, that pesky budget crisis Schwarzenegger’s been telling us about. You can understand why Nishimura would be hesitant to accept a law so open to interpretation. “We know nothing about Feng Shui,” he also added.

I know how you feel, Stan. Still, I wonder if I should call Ms. Wright and get her to do the project. After all, Feng Shui leads to serenity, calm and relaxation. I could definitely use that.

On the other hand, I could just take the money and put in a hot tub.
Letter from California-January 26, 2004

I’ve heard Hollywood-types occasionally repeat the saying, “politics is show business for ugly people.” Maybe in the past, you could have drawn a line between politics and show biz and separated people accordingly: doughy-faced shlubs and women in sensible shoes on one side; hunky dudes with cleft chins and Barbie dolls in Bruno Magli heels on the other. No more. In the Age of Governor Arnold, it’s tough to tell the wonks from the studs. Schwarzenegger has gotten very good at talking about complex policy issues and just to balance things out, the Democrats in the state Assembly have toned up their delts and glutes and put on a few pounds of muscle mass.

I made that last part up, but could it be that show business is just politics for stupid people? The last few years have seen a change in the attitudes of entertainers toward open participation in politics. It used to be thought that a star’s personal feelings about politics should be kept personal and not thrust upon the world. For example, Farrah Fawcett ruled the television and bikini poster world during the mid-70s and no one ever heard about her passionate support for the preservation of the unicorn. She just didn’t feel it was appropriate to burden her many fans with it.

Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen are neither stupid nor ugly people. Danson, you’ll remember, starred as recovering alcoholic and former pro baseball player Sam Malone in Cheers and Steenburgen, his wife, has been a successful actress in both TV shows and movies whose names you can’t remember for years . A few days ago, they both announced with great fanfare their support for General Wesley Clark in the Democratic primaries. They even left the warm Santa Monica sun for the frozen tundra of New Hampshire to extol the virtues of General Clark to the locals. Pity the good people of New Hampshire-if they’re not getting a phone call with a pre-recorded message from one of the candidates, they’re being hassled while shopping by an Hollywood actor. Imagine it: “Honey, don’t go to the mall. Sam from Cheers and that woman who’s been in all those movies won’t let you leave.”

Stars, like anybody, have the right to express their political opinions, and many of them seem to be going for the General. Madonna, also neither stupid nor ugly, most recently published a letter on her website explaining that while she had never before come out in support of a candidate during the primaries, she just felt she had to do it. Why Clark? The most specific thing she had to say about him is that he is “smart and good.” She thinks the current administration has a “complete lack of consciousness” which must be corrected immediately.

If you aren’t convinced by now, well, I’m not surprised. Clark, if elected, could prove to be a wonderful President, and it may be true that Bush is completely unconscious for more than the required 6 to 8 hours a night. Still, the question worth trying to answer is why? Why does someone like Madonna, who has an IQ of 140, write and publish a letter that’s as thoughtful and clever as a Bazooka Joe comic? Why would Danson and Steenburgen assume that any rock-ribbed New Hampshire-ite would give any more weight to their political opinions than to the opinions of the guy down the street who volunteers at the soup kitchen or runs a small engine repair shop? General Clark isn’t asking that guy to wow the crowds for him.

It reminds me of the time that I almost hospitalized Jamie Lee Curtis. I was walking around a street corner in Santa Monica a few years ago and there she was, trundling her two little kids into a bakery. Being about 100 pounds lighter than me and distracted by her kids, Jamie Lee would have gotten by far the worse of the collision. After I recovered from the double shock of nearly clobbering a movie star and being dazzled by how good she looked in person, there was a brief moment where we were looking at each other. I said, “oh, sorry” or something like that. She didn’t say anything at all. She just gave me a look that said, “I know you know I’m a star, and that’s enough.”

They must go through their whole lives like that, with most people just dazzled to see them. I loved Halloween and Trading Places. She’s a good actress and her reputation is that she’s a good mom and a nice person. It was very cool to see her (and of course that no teeth were lost or bones broken in the process), but it wasn’t anything more to me than a funny story to put in a newspaper column one day. She saw my surprise and delight at seeing her, but she didn’t see the fact that 2 minutes later, I was completely over it.

So Madonna, Ted, Mary, express yourselves. Support your favorite politicians. It’s your right to do so. Just remember that even though we’re excited to see you, we don’t expect you to say anything important.

Leave that to the generals and the engine repair guys.
Letter from California-January 19, 2004

When the President proposed going to the Moon and Mars last week, I couldn’t help but think of the old Mercury and Apollo programs of the 60s and 70s, and as I thought about them, I realized that all the pictures in my head were not of the actual programs, but of movies about the programs. To me, Ed Harris, who played John Glenn in “The Right Stuff”, looks more like John Glenn than the war hero, astronaut, and Senator John Glenn himself. It’s not fair to Glenn, just the first American to orbit the Earth, but that’s the power of movies.

So it makes sense that I should live in Los Angeles, where all these movies are made. Only 10 miles or so from my hometown of Pasadena you will find Universal Studios, where they made the 1995 movie Apollo 13. They’re the people you can blame for the overuse of the phrase “Houston, we have a problem.” On the plus side, though, they made a space movie so good, people thought it was real NASA footage. They actually took Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise and the rest of the crew up in a KC-135 cargo plane and flew in giant dipsy-doodles to create the zero gravity effects. Tom Hanks claims he has logged more weightless hours because of this than many real astronauts. On the other hand, the guy talks to volleyballs for months on end, so trust him at your own risk.

Like many people my age, I have a pretty serious complaint about the space program: dude, where’s my flying car? As a child, I, like many, felt that certainly by the time I had children, I’d be putting their astronaut helmets on them every morning and loading them into the family saucer. Rip-off. No flying or even hovering cars in sight. In fact, apart from dramatically improved safety, comfort, reliability and fuel efficiency, cars have hardly changed at all from when I was piled into the way back of the AMC Matador with my little brother.

At one point, we looked like we were on our way. All the news from Mars right now is exciting, but people often forget that we sent a ship to Mars in 1976. It was called Viking and it landed on Mars and sent back some pictures of rocks. It didn’t have cruise control or leather seats the way Spirit (the current Mars rover) does, but it basically did the same thing. If we had kept going from where we were 28 years ago, I feel sure that some of the spin-off technologies would have us flying around like the Jetsons by now. Instead, we built a small fleet of space U-Hauls and flew around the one planet we have pretty well explored, and that’s no way to get a hovercraft into every garage. Oh, well, we did get the Internet and that was a total surprise.

With the Moon and Mars back on the agenda, though, another group of Californians moves into the spotlight. My friends and neighbors at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory here in Pasadena conceived, designed, built and launched the current Mars missions and if the President’s proposals go through, they’ll be the ones who have to figure out a way to build a base on the Moon and then fly a mission to Mars. That should be easy. All it takes is getting people back up to the surface of the moon the way we did in the 70s. There’s more computing power in the average coffee maker now than all of NASA had then. How hard could it be?

Of course, it wouldn’t be enough just to get people back to the Moon to scoop rocks, plant an Old Glory and hit some golf balls for a little while like back then. They’d need to stay long enough to build a base. That takes food and water, of which on the moon there is none, so it would have to be shipped in regularly. They’d also need to get a nuclear reactor up and running since that’s the only kind of power you could count on up there. Then, once the Moon base is up and running, they’ll need to find a way to assemble and launch rockets from there. These rockets are going to be flying for almost a year to Mars, and if people are going to be on them, they’re going to have to eat, drink and do all the other thing people do. When they land, they’ll need to breathe, move around, and of course, get back to either the earth or the Moon.

Here’s the thing, though. We can do it and we should. Back in the 60s, President Kennedy suggested there were two equally important reasons for us to commit to going into space: first, national prestige. If there’s going to be a flag planted on Mars, I sure want it to have 13 stripes and 50 stars on it. Second, and I think more powerfully, we should work to develop the capability to operate in space for as yet unforeseen purposes. For me, those reasons still hold.

Someday you can stop and consider this moment in 2004 when you thought about what it would take to get back to the Moon and then on to Mars and chuckled. It’s probably about how it felt when people thought about sailing across the Atlantic to find India 500 years ago or when they thought about building flying machines. They probably felt the same way when they dreamed that a powerful computer could fit on a corner of a desk or that a person could actually walk on the moon. Someday you might look back on this moment and remember how far off it seemed.

And if we do get there, it will probably be because of a group of high-powered L.A. geeks whose job is Rocket Science, literally. Not everyone thinks in a time of deficits and danger we should be thinking about the future in such a big way. Some of you may even think it can’t be done, but I disagree, and I’m confident that once the project gets going in earnest, most of you will be supporting the men and women who make it happen.

And I’ll be sure to tell them when I bump into them at the Dry Cleaners.