Letter from California

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

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Letter from California-June 28, 2004

I got a letter in the mail a couple days ago from my car insurance company. In big red letters on the envelope, it announced that some important changes had been made to my policy that I needed to read right away. Were they raising my rates? Did they have a hidden camera in the passenger seat that showed that I hold up a lighter and sing along with “Freebird” a little too often while driving? Did they have spies in the Home Depot parking lot all those times I played a game I call “Who Wants to Drive like Steve McQueen?”
Not quite. Instead, it was a warning about two new kinds of danger. These days, we know that we’re living in dangerous times. For example, just this week, a man walked right up to the security checkpoint at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, just south of L.A., with a gun and ammunition in his carry-on baggage. He didn’t try to hide it, really; he just put it right through the x-ray machine. Thanks to the eagle eyes of airport security, the criminal mastermind got locked up. On the bright side for him, he’s been nominated for the Dumbest Terrorist of the Year award. Best of luck with that, bonehead.
It’s a dangerous time, and in addition to idiots taking to the sky with rifles, there are a couple of risks that my auto insurance company (I won’t tell you the name of the company, but I will say that they operate in States with Farms and states without them) has decided it can no longer cover. Take a second and try to guess.
Ok, time’s up. You got it wrong. The answers are mushrooms and nuclear explosions. To be more precise, the company has said that any personal injury caused by fungi (mushrooms, mold, spores, mildew, etc.) while driving is positively not going to be covered by my policy. Also, by the way, a nuclear explosion wouldn’t be covered either.
I’m serious. They sent me a letter to say this. If I get any crazy ideas about crashing into a nuclear reactor or eating a handful of Magic Mushrooms on my commute to work, financially speaking, I’m on my own.
Of course, it’s only partly as crazy as it sounds. I’m sure the company has been sued at least once about mold in the floorboards of a car. I can’t explain the nuclear part, but if I ever do get an NWD (Nuked While Driving), my auto insurance claim probably won’t make it to the top of the priority list.
It did remind me, though, of how much danger we face on a daily basis. Sure, there’s NWD and WMD, but fungi is an example of micro-danger. It can come from anywhere. For example, did you ever use those crunchy little silver balls to decorate Christmas cookies? A lot of people do, and in fact, they’ve become a gourmet item in California. I didn’t realize two things about them though: first, they are called “dragees”; second, they actually contain some silver. Silver, of course, is toxic.
After I started thinking about micro-danger this week, I found a report from last December in the San Francisco Chronicle about a Bay Area lawyer (yes, he’s from San Francisco) who sued pretty much everyone he could find in the Bay Area who sold dragees. The Chronicle says that Mark Pollock admits he “doesn’t know anyone” who has been harmed by eating dragees, but being a busybody, killjoy lawyer, he figured why let facts stand in the way of his pointless hostility and interference with other people’s lives.
Amazingly, companies like fancy-pants gourmet food store chain Dean and Deluca and others caved into his demand, and it’s now easier to get marijuana in San Francisco than it is to get silver Christmas cookie balls.
Why give in to such a thing? Too expensive to fight, they say. Well, they ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Knowing how easily they cave, I’m going to set aside a day to think of things I’d like them to do and just threaten to sue them. That should be fun.
Maybe Pollock doesn’t care about the facts of dragees and their effect on their health, but the Chronicle asked an expert at the California Department of Health Services, who said you’d need to eat “massive quantities” of dragees to do any harm. They don’t know how many because going to the trouble of finding out would be, well, a gigantic waste of time and money.
Of course, the bakery owners don’t like it. The Chronicle spoke to Nora Tong, a baker in San Francisco who now has to sneak her dragees in from France. She thinks the whole matter is ridiculous and said, “I will always buy them. I love dragees.”
So there’s good news and bad news and then more good news. The good news is that thanks to the bravery of people like Pollock, Californians are now safer from a danger so small that it’s not even worth measuring. The bad news is that if a nuclear explosion buries my car in mushrooms and poisonous dragees, I have to pay to tap out and repaint the fender.
I feel for Tong. She went on to say that she admits Pollock has gotten people in her profession worried: “It’s too bad that we are all so fearful, and we are being terrorized by this.”
That means the other good news is that it looks like California is going to have two entries in that Dumbest Terrorist of the Year competition. I like our chances!

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Letter from California-June 22, 2004

As some of you may recall, California’s State Assembly is semi-seriously considering a bill that would give partial votes in statewide elections to children under 18 years old. I say semi-seriously because the legislators who are in favor of this preposterous idea cannot be taken seriously at all whereas the other legislators for all we know could still be people that we can call by their honorific title without cracking up. Them, I would have to judge on a crackpot-by-crackpot basis. That’s what I mean by semi-serious.
A few weeks ago, Governor Schwarzenegger shocked this Assembly by suggesting that the body be returned to the part-time status it held until the 1970s. Arnold said that with enough time on its hands, the Assembly would simply sit around and dream up a bunch of crazy laws. The Assembly responded by saying that only professional legislators could understand the ins and outs of good government and that if you made them part-time, they’d have to get real jobs.
Good point. These aren’t the kind of people you’d want as co-workers. Best to keep them locked up in the state capital. That way, you don’t have to listen to their tireless whining about their 7-step plan to streamline your shipping department or listen to their speech about how the vending machine in the lunch room should have apples and oranges in it instead of candy bars and potato chips.
So leave it to the same people who’d replace your mesquite bar-b-que chips with some mealy, vending machine apple to come up with a rule so pointless that I’m offended my tax dollars are being spent on it. In fact, I’m even a little ticked that I’m taking the time to write a column about it, but the horse is out of the barn on that one, so I’m just going to go with it.
California has about 1,500 artificial tanning salons. These are the places where you go into a dark room and climb into what looks like a giant clam so that you can look as though you’ve been in the great outdoors, playing ball, swimming at the beach. Maybe fishing for giant clams. Who knows?
Currently, if you are between the ages of 15 and 18 years old in California, you need your parents’ permission to go to an artificial tanning salon. This doesn’t seem completely outrageous. Parents have to give their permission for many of the choices that teenagers make. After all, teenagers generally exercise the judgment of a person who’s had a couple of strong drinks with dinner: not completely out of control, but definitely a little goofy.
The proposed law (whose sponsor, Assemblyman Joe Nation, has one of the best politician names going) would tighten up the standard. No longer would parental permission be enough, but instead, teenagers would need written permission from a doctor to enter a tanning bed.
Wait a second! What kind of a doctor would prescribe artificial tanning? In California? The whole darn state is practically a gigantic outdoor tanning salon about 280 days a year. What kind of quack would actually prescribe an extra-strength, super-concentrated dose of solar energy? Probably the same kind of doctor as that fifth dentist who doesn’t recommend sugarless gum for his patients that chew gum.
Of course, if your mother or father is already a doctor, you might be all set. No, Doctor of Mixology doesn’t count, and neither does that phony baloney Doctor of Divinity in the Church of Universal Life that you can get by sending $40 to the address in the back of those magazines.
Look, nobody’s in favor of teenagers crisping themselves to a golden brown for the prom, only to turn into Leatherface by the time they’re 30. And heaven knows, not all California parents are responsible enough to make good decisions on behalf of their children. Madonna, for example.
Still, many of the same people who believe that teenagers should be able to get abortions without parental consent think that the same kids shouldn’t be able to drop in for ten minutes under the UV lamp without the illegible signature of the family doctor. There’s a word for that, I think. It’s on the tip of my tongue.
On the bright side, some legislators spoke out against the bill. Assemblyman Ed Haynes said it this way: “If this bill passes, it proves there’s no part of somebody’s life that this Legislature won’t stick its nose into.”
Probably true, but if they’re smart, they’ll make sure that nose is covered with at least SPF 30 sunblock.
Letter from California-June 14, 2004

Every spring in California, school children all over the state are required take a box full of Popsicle sticks and build something that symbolizes the history of the state of California: a Spanish-style mission.
How can one building represent the history of a whole state? Right about the time that folks in Massachusetts and South Carolina started dumping tea in harbors, Spanish priests in Mexico thought it was time to move north and civilize the natives with a chain of outposts starting in the south and gradually moving north. The natives, not consulted on whether or not they were interested in the project, generally met the priests with a combination of kindness and suspicion, but their cooperation and labor ended up being critical in building the mission buildings and churches. In fact, if you’ve ever seen a “mission” style building (or a Taco Bell restaurant for that matter), you can tip your hat to those priests and the Native Americans who helped them.
Eventually, towns grew up around the churches, houses, and markets that defined these missions. San Diego became the first mission town. Then came places like San Jose, Santa Cruz, San Francisco and lesser-known places like San Gabriel and San Juan Bautista. It’s just an ordinary list of a few of the larger towns in California, but funnily enough, it tends to have a different sound in the ear if I translate those names from Spanish into English:

Saint Joseph, Holy Cross, Saint Francis, Saint Gabriel the Archangel, Saint John the Baptist.

The priests dedicated each of these missions to a saint or in the name of some important part of Christianity.
Then, there was this other place: El Pueblo de neustro senora la Reina de Los Angeles. English translation: The City of our Lady the Queen of the Angels. Any guesses who they were talking about? That’s right, the Holy Mother herself, Mary.
Think of it. About 250 years ago, a handful of priests and soldiers gathered a few hundred natives and built a small scattering of buildings which have turned into a metropolitan area of 10,000,000 known all around the world as L.A. Without that mission, life would have continued for the Spanish and the natives, but there wouldn’t be a city here. In other words, it’s impossible to talk about the history of Los Angeles without talking about the role of that mission.
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union began its fight against the County of Los Angeles. What diabolical assault on our freedoms has L.A. County perpetrated now? Has someone been imprisoned without a fair trial? Perhaps someone publishing opinions criticizing the County Supervisors had their offices raided and shut down? Have the County’s police officers been systematically abusing their power by forcing small businesses to pay them off for protection? No? Nothing like that?
Not quite. You see, the County of L.A., like many counties, has a seal, and on that seal are many things, including oil wells, a Spanish Galleon, a Roman goddess, something that looks like a croissant, a tic tac toe board, a no-bake cookie recipe, Fonzie’s jacket from Happy Days, and a silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock. Alright, maybe I just thought I saw those last few things, but it has a lot of things. One of them is a tiny, tiny cross. It seems that the ACLU thinks that having a cross on the seal is part of L.A.’s super-secret plan to force Christianity on its citizens. My first intelligent, finely honed argument against this is simple: what-ever!
Upon further reflection, however, I have some deeper thoughts. It’s important for an American state, county or city not to push a religion on the people. I’ll prove it to you. Imagine that your town or county somehow voted a group of devout Snake Handlers into office. Shortly after they took over, it was decided there would be designated Snake Handling time at the beginning of every school day. Even if you could request that your child not actually have to handle the snakes, you’d probably still want it stopped.
On the other hand, the reason the founding fathers thought it was important to say that the government shouldn’t be allowed to make an official religion was not because they didn’t want any religion but because they wanted to see to it that people were free to practice the way they wanted. They were afraid that without this, governments could start making citizens show their faith in God by wearing a water moccasin as a fashion accessory every morning before Algebra class. That’s so far from wanting to make sure that no religious symbol ever appears in public that it hardly seems like I would have to explain it.
Apparently, it’s not as obvious to others as it is to me. Add to that one more simple fact: take away the missions, represented by the cross on the seal, and there is no city or county of Los Angeles. No mission, no L.A., no Hollywood. A world without movies! Almost too horrible to imagine.
But since we do have the movie business, maybe we can just give the script of history a little rewrite: about 250 years ago, a small band of movie producers came to this area and, with the help of native technicians, built a small studio. Eventually, a city grew, but since Los Angeles means, of course “The Angels”, we’ll have to rewrite that as well.
How about Los Angulos? It sounds similar and translates to, “The Angles” which, as a city name, is completely meaningless.
Just the way the ACLU would like it.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Letter from California-June 7, 2004

“Let’s just fix up the ones on this hill,” Jake, my six year old son, said to me. He was pointing to a slope that stretched about a quarter of a mile up a rather steep expanse of grass in the Los Angeles National Cemetery. It was the weekend before last, the day before Memorial Day and the kids had been running around the cemetery straightening the dime-store American flags which had been planted in front of the graves of the tens of thousands of servicemen and women who are buried here.
Needless to say, we would have needed the entire 3-day weekend to take care of the whole hillside, but in his mind, we might be able to dash quickly through the rows and put the colors back in their rightful place, standing tall in front of the person buried there.
Los Angeles National Cemetery looks a lot like the other National cemeteries that you may have visited: green and trim, with stately and simple monuments lined up in perfect straightness and symmetry, stretching far farther than you expect. Just outside the august gates of this cemetery, though, lie a few things that the other veterans’ cemeteries generally don’t have. For example, if you’ve ever seen movie stars stepping out of a limousine and onto a red carpet for a movie premiere, there’s an excellent chance that they were going to the Fox Theatre in Westwood. The Fox’s box office is less than a quarter mile from the eastern border of the cemetery. Two minutes to the west is the neighborhood of Brentwood, home of the rich and flaky, which became infamous as the backdrop for the absurd events of the OJ drama. If you live there and your neighbor to the left isn’t a celebrity and your neighbor to the right isn’t a celebrity, there’s a good chance you are.
It’s also about half a mile from the Bel-Air home of President Reagan. We didn’t know it at the time, but when we visited, he was in the final days of his life.. Bel-Air may once have had a Fresh Prince, but it had only one President. Like another famous California politician you may have heard of, Reagan had a movie career that made him the subject of plenty of jokes. He starred in mostly forgettable movies, sharing the spotlight with a monkey on several occasions. Yet somehow, without an Academy Award, Reagan’s name will be remembered far longer than any of his famous, talented and beloved neighbors in this neighborhood of stars.
Yes, he once called ketchup a vegetable and said that trees polluted too. He also happened to be the one of the very few people in 1980 that believed that the tyranny of Soviet communism could be brought to an end in the foreseeable future. By contrast, his political opponent, Jimmy Carter, famously commented that “communism is here to stay.” Just nine years later, the citizens of Berlin let Carter know that they begged to differ and tore down one big ugly wall, leading a shocking revolution that freed hundreds of millions from the gray boot of government control.
In other words, they got a chance to live their lives in a way that we take for granted. They, and their children, will get to make their own decisions. Many of these decisions will be bad ones, and many of these lives will be unhappy, but they will belong to the people who live them.
When we were picking up the wind-blown flags in front of the grave markers, Jake asked me why they put a flag in front of every grave. I told him that he should always remember that each one of these graves represented a person who lived a life. Some of them died in war, but most of them didn’t. Most of them served their country and went on to live their lives like the rest of us. Freedom is a blank sheet of paper, and you can write anything you want. The hitch is that if you can’t think of anything worth writing, there’s no pattern you can trace, no answer key to look at in the back of the book and copy.
Which is just how it should be. Each of us is here to live out a personal mission that no one else has ever had. Every one of those flags represents a man or woman who once upon a time put his or her tail on the line to make sure that it stays that way.
Jake gets it now and I hope it stays with him, and his little sister, forever. Freedom means picking the path of your own life. It’s such a simple idea that it gets tangled up in people’s minds with a bunch of other concepts, and I get scared that sometimes people lose the thread entirely.
Maybe that’s what had happened when President Carter, a good and moral man, decided that he was comfortable with a system that separated people from their most basic rights. For this reason, I agree with former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl who called Ronald Reagan “a stroke of luck for Europe and the world.”

Over the last couple of days, I’ve reflected on Reagan’s passing, on the visit to the cemetery and on my own hopes for the future. I had a dim vision of my child’s child’s child chasing a rambunctious young boy or girl through the same marble headstones and dime store flags on some beautiful Los Angeles morning in May, many years from now.
The child asks why there’s a flag on each grave, even those for ancient wars like one that happened long, long ago in a place called Iraq. A century from now, I dream that the parent will have a good answer:
“Because each one of these people thought you would like to live in freedom.”