Letter from California

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

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Letter from California-May 16, 2004

Usually when someone uses the expression “fair weather fan,” it has nothing to do with the weather. It means, of course, that the person in question loves his team when they’re winning and wants nothing to do with them when they’re losing. Nobody likes that kind of person. This guy used to wear Dallas Cowboys gear but traded it in for Yankee pinstripes or a Michael Jordan jersey when the fickle winds of fortune changed directions. He may even have found his way into Carolina garnet or Clemson orange for a brief spell.
On the other hand, what would you call a person who pays $15,000 for one ticket to one game? Los Angeles sports fans have a reputation for being soft, and in some ways, it seems pretty undeniable. I’ve talked before about the terror caused by light to moderate rain in this town, and believe me, in a sprinkling, Dodger Stadium would empty out like a church service going too long on Super Bowl Sunday. As a matter of fact, just this weekend, I watched about half of a crowd of 40,000 leave the Dodgers game after the 7th inning when the home team failed to score. Forget about ‘root, root, root for the home team.’ It was ‘beat, beat, beat the bad traffic.’ For me, I’d still rather sit outside in the beautiful weather in Chavez Ravine than almost anything. It was a gorgeous day.
So maybe L.A. fans walk out of baseball games early compared to people in other parts of the country. I have friends in Massachusetts who, when younger, would have built an igloo, if necessary, to survive while waiting to buy Boston Celtics tickets. And if food ran short, cannibalism was not out of the question if going for food meant losing their spot in line.
On the other hand, no one is paying more for tickets these days than L.A. fans are paying to see the Lakers take a run at another championship. I wasn’t joking earlier when I said that one ticket was selling for $15,000. It was for last Saturday night’s game against the San Antonio Spurs. Of course, these were courtside seats, right between Dustin Hoffman and Denzel Washington. That’s some pretty nice real estate, I admit, but for $15,000, you could make a pretty nice deposit on some actual real estate. You wouldn’t have to leave after two hours either.
It wasn’t just the glamour seats. Even getting a spot in the rafters is going for 200 bucks, and it’s not even the championship yet. By then, the only people who’ll be able to afford to go to the games will be all the NBA players whose teams have already been eliminated.
In most cities, home court advantage can make all the difference. In Philadelphia, for example, the opponents of the football Eagles can count on being pelted with bottles for most of the game. It got so bad a few years ago that they had to start selling beer in plastic containers, forcing the fans there to smuggle in debris and foreign objects under their coats to toss. In L.A., we’re a little too mellow generally speaking to assault the other team with the contents of the trash can, but we’re not without our own secret weapon.
Jack Nicholson.
Oh, he can be scary. Maybe not as scary as back in the days when he would hack down doors with an ax and announce, “Heeeeeeree’s Johnny!” but still scary. Just as things were looking bad for the Lakers the other night, Jack turned it around for the local boys. Since his seat is so close to the opposing bench, Jack decided that he should join the Spurs’ huddle. He shared a few choice words with the coaches and players before very politely being asked to return to his seat.
I doubt he told them he wanted to see a good clean game where everyone plays his best and makes friends.
Yes, I doubt that very much.
Whatever he said, it may have caused the Spurs to begin to lose their drive to win, and in fact they ended up losing the series. I mean, how would you like it if Jack Nicholson took the time out of his movie star schedule to berate you on national television? Some might find it flattering, I suppose.
Maybe that’s just it. Perhaps it wasn’t the kind of trash talking that’s supposed to throw your opponent off his game and keep him angry and unfocused. Maybe it was just the opposite.
What’s the one job more glamorous than pro athlete? Even Shaquille O’Neal, gigantic goofball mega-star of the Lakers, can’t stay away from the Biz. It must be even more dazzling to the boys from the small Texas city best known for the Alamo.
I think I know what Nicholson said to the Spurs that put the Lakers over the top.
“Fellas, call me when you’re done with this basketball stuff. We need to get you into the movies!” Enough to break anyone’s concentration.
As a home court advantage, that beats throwing beer bottles any day.
Letter from California-May 23, 2004

In 1976, I was 7 years old and in second grade. It was a Presidential election year, and I had some pretty strong opinions about the matter. My candidate just had to win. I’d thought about it and had a solid reason to be pulling for James Earl Carter to defeat Gerald Ford and become the President of the United States.
His name.
James. Just like me. That clinched it.
Being 7, my opinion didn’t count for much, and I’m sure that my attempts to convince adults with my impeccable reasons for wishing I could vote for the man from Plains ended not in a Carter voter, but a tussling of my hair and an affectionate, “ok, little buddy.”
That story came back to me when I heard recently of an idea that’s afloat in the California legislature and co-sponsored by my very own Assemblywoman. It’s a simple, extraordinary idea: allow 14 year olds to vote in California state elections. To be specific, 14 and 15 year old would get 1/4th of a vote and 16 and 17 year olds would get ½ of a vote. Of course, they wouldn’t be able to vote for President or Congress or Senate, but they’d be able to vote for Governor and State Assembly and all the crazy California ballot propositions.
Now I know what you’re thinking, but actually, this isn’t the worst idea in the history of the world. For example, there was New Coke. That was a worse idea. Then, there was Neville Chamberlain giving Czechoslovakia to Hitler. That was definitely a worse idea. Then there was that time I tried to get rid of a hornet’s nest with a rifle, leading to about 400 hornets flying straight at me in unison, which made me take off running, trip over the rifle and wind up with the butt of the gun right in the bottom lip.
Actually, I think votes for 14 year olds is worse than that last one. I did get rid of a pretty big hornet’s nest and all it really cost me was a fat lip.
Politically, votes for 14 year olds would be worse than a fat lip and a big shiner in the right eye, administered once a day by a mean kid with a crew cut named Butch. Root Beer would flow in the water fountains of the public schools; the test to qualify for a driver’s license would be administered on your choice of Game Boy or PlayStation, with bonus points for the number of crazy killer robots you can gun down while trying to parallel park; grounding or restricting a child for any reason would be punishable by jail time, a fine or both.
So who are the people bringing this idea forward? Presumably sane, these folks have actually managed to remain gainfully employed as lawmakers in the Great State of California. Assemblyman John Vasconcellos from Santa Clara (can you believe he’s not from San Francisco?) is leading the charge to take the very little bit of dignity left in California’s democratic process and completely embrace the American Idol way of deciding things. He says his goal is simply to get more young people involved in civic life. “People who are engaged early stay on,” Vasconcellos said. “Experience is the best teacher.”
You’d think that a man who had just said something about experience being a good teacher would have looked back on the track record of the last time the voting age was dropped in this country. In 1971, the voting age for national elections went from 21 to 18. The theory went that as long as Presidents Johnson or Nixon could request the pleasure of your company for a scenic, one-year tour of beautiful Vietnam, you ought to be able to vote for the man whose name you’d be cursing while you were there. Tough to beat that logic.
Yet, looking back, just giving people the ability to vote doesn’t seem to have much connection with their actually showing up at the American Legion building on a frosty November morning and choosing the lesser of two evils. Since 1972, no group of voters has dropped out of the voting process in greater number than the 18-21 year olds. Since lowering the voting age, voters in general have shown absolutely no evidence of turning out in greater numbers. In fact, there’s a small decline in voter turnout since then.
Not letting silly little things like “facts,” “evidence,” or “logic” get in the way of his crackpot ideas, Vasconcellos does admit to hiding his true feeling. He admits that the part of his bill that gives quarter and half votes to the kiddies is just “strategic.” He says that if he expressed his true feelings on the subject, his bill “wouldn’t have much legs.”
I’d have to agree with him there. The more I hear his true feelings, the wobblier it all seems.
“In my heart, I think 16-year olds should be given a full vote.”
And in John Vasconcellos heart, as contrasted with the actual world in which we all live, they’d be so grateful, they’d pledge their lives to become model citizens.
Back in reality, more of them would probably be picking their favorite candidates like I did in ’76.
Tough break for Schwarzenegger.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Letter from California-May 10, 2004


In my book, this is the greatest nickname any television character ever had. You remember Meathead from All in the Family, don’t you? He was Archie Bunker’s son-in-law with the bad mop of hair and the crazy ideas about how maybe people of different races could live in harmony. Archie never cottoned to either of those of course.

Years later and the man who played Meathead, Rob Reiner, has come a long way. He’s actually got about the same amount of hair, but his head (and the rest of him, I’d add) has gotten so much meatier that there’s a great big bald patch on top. More importantly, he’s had a great career as a director of films like Spinal Tap and Stand by Me and When Harry Met Sally. He, like our good buddy Ron Howard, is one of the few to make the jump from 70s television star to something other than reruns or nostalgia shows in Vegas or Branson.

He’s also gotten political. A few years back, he sponsored a statewide ballot initiative that added a $.50 tax on every pack of cigarettes sold in California. All the money collected was set aside for “early childhood development.” In a perfect world, this would mean things like paid day care and preschool for poor children, education for new mothers about how to take care of themselves during pregnancy, and other goodies.

Since only about 15% of Californians smoke, you can probably guess what happened. Figuring “I’m not going to be paying for it anyway, so what the hey,” a big majority of Californians pulled the ‘yes’ lever on the proposition and it became law. Reiner got a new job as Meathead-in-chief on the commission that had to be set up to administer the half a billion dollars a year or so that the program collects.

Before I start sounding a little negative, I want to say a couple of nice things about Rob Reiner. First, he doesn’t need this aggravation. Sure, he went out and created a job for himself, but there’s no way he did all this for a job. He’s got it made: making movies is one of the world’s best occupations and he’s got all the money he could ever need. Being the Commissioner of this group must resemble trying to get a group of preschoolers to do a synchronized swimming routine.

Second, if you ever listen to him talking about this stuff, it’s obvious that he cares a lot. A couple years ago, I was invited to a lunch at which Reiner talked about the First 5 Association (that’s the name of the commission that administers the money), and for about an hour and a half, Reiner rattled off statistics and talked about the details of programs like a geek at Star Trek convention. If early childhood development were a science fiction TV show, Rob Reiner would be the guy who had his ears surgically changed to look like Spock’s. I admire it.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help but ask a few questions. The first one was, “I heard the state is having financial trouble. How are you sure that this money is being well spent?” Remember, we’re talking billions. With a B.

This week marks five years since the Commission went into action, and the reviews are mixed. Some things have changed. According to a news story I picked up in the Marin Independent Journal (a Northern California paper), uninsured children in the Bay Area have access to more medical care, $600 million has been set aside to fund preschool in L.A. county, and a number of other government goodies have appeared, like free videotapes about childcare for all new parents.

Here’s my problem. Is it working? Reiner says we should wait “10 or 15 years down the road” to see if juvenile delinquency, low birth weights, or birth defects because of smoking while pregnant actually go down. That seems like a long time to me. Shouldn’t we be able to see something after 5 years?

Here’s my other problem. Do we want people to smoke or not? The reason we’re picking on smokers with this law is that there aren’t enough of them, so what can they do? On the other hand, taxing something makes people do less of it, and in fact, revenues for the program have dropped 6 percent every year. That means that in another 5 years or so, Reiner and company will be working with only about half the annual childcare dough as when they started. Something tells me they’re not going to think that’s enough. What do you suppose they’ll do then?

Anyway, folks say this is a great set-up for ultimate showdown in 2006: The Terminator versus Meathead in an all-Hollywood brawl for the Governor’s mansion.

I say we settle it right now with push-ups.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Letter from California-May 4, 2004

Let’s pretend for a moment that Myrtle Beach, South Carolina rather than Hollywood, California were the worldwide capital of the movie-making business. If it were, you would have Woody Harrelson and his grass-powered craziness to put up with, but there would be definite benefits. For example, many of the movies that get shipped worldwide would depict a “typical” American neighborhood not as a neat and tidy Los Angeles suburb like in E.T. or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Instead, it would be a brick sub-development around an artificial lake with a name like Deerwood. People all over the world would picture the rest of America being a lot like all the little housing developments that have been built on top of the pine woods like the ones where my brothers and I used to shoot BB guns at each other when we were little.
Having moved to California, I understand this in a way that native Californians don’t. Since I, like all transplants, know that the rest of America doesn’t generally resemble Reseda or Irvine, it’s fascinating to think that, for example, a foreign exchange student could come to the country and based on watching HBO back in Germany for his whole life, he would expect a four-bedroom Ranch style house with a two-car garage and instead find himself in a 2-story log cabin five minutes from his own mailbox and 30 minutes from his adopted school.
Image is important. I lived in Japan in the early and mid-90s, and despite the many wonderful thing about Japan and the Japanese, I always got a little ticked at one thing that almost every Japanese person I ever met would say.
“America is very dangerous.”
Ok, some of them would actually say, “America is very danger,” but I got the message. Thanks to the L.A. gangster movie craze of the late 1980s, Japanese people assumed that the minute they got to the curb with their suitcases at L.A. Airport, Ice Cube was going to pull up in his car, shoot them in the head and take all of their Hello Kitty merchandise. Worse yet, he’d be speaking to them in English so fast while he was doing it, that they wouldn’t even get a chance to put those expensive English lessons to use.
In reality, of course, for the overwhelming majority of Japanese who visit us, America is very safe. Millions visit every year. Ice Cube can only get around to assaulting a couple dozen, so those aren’t bad odds. I’d say a chance to see Stallone’s handprints on Hollywood Boulevard and a visit to Disneyland are probably worth the risk.
So the question is why people would make movies that make their own home country, state or town look worse than it really is? Why would these moviemakers go around deliberately scaring people about things that they don’t need to be scared about when it’s actually not good for business?
That’s what I’ve been asking myself this week as I think about the movie that just aired on NBC called 10.5. The premise is that an earthquake of magnitude 10.5 hits the west coast and threatens to turn Southern California into an island. The destruction is mind-blowing. Picture Ruben Studdard fighting his way out of an enormous birthday cake, and you get the image of what this earthquake is doing to the Pacific states. Of course, the whole movie comes down to scientist’s plan “just so crazy it might work” to explode a nuclear bomb to make the San Andreas fault melt back together and prevent the worst. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t ruin it, but basically the nukes are just the medicine for the situation and everyone is sipping cappuccino again the next day. Everybody, that is, except for the people who get killed when the smaller earthquakes level Seattle and San Francisco.
It probably doesn’t have to be said how silly this all is, but I’ll say it anyway. It’s very, very, very silly. Just for reference, a 10.5 earthquake is thousands of times more powerful than the earthquake that caused the Bay Bridge to come apart and put a stop to the World Series in 1989. If the 1989 quake were one water balloon hitting you in the back of the head, you can picture a 10.5 quake by thinking of thousands of water balloons all hitting you at the same time. If the shaking from the 1989 quake were like the crazy pelvic gyrations of Elvis Presley, a 10.5 would be the equivalent of more than 5000 Elvises.
Whole lotta shakin’ indeed.
It’s not to say that a 10.5 earthquake couldn’t hit. It could. It has. It will again. But probably not when we, our children, their children, their children, their children, their children or their children’s robot clones are around to care. If images of Southern California breaking off and falling into the ocean have the same effect as some of the images that Hollywood has put out there over the years, a movie like this can cause people to waste precious brain cells giving it a second thought.
Moviemakers should uphold their responsibilities as good citizens to keep people focused on the real danger here.
Ice Cube. He wants your luggage and will stop at nothing to get it.