Letter from California

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

Monday, November 29, 2004

Letter from California-November 29, 2004

Did the Presidential campaign seem long to you this year? I’m all mixed up, because I have distinct memories of watching the early primaries right around the time of the Seinfeld finale, but that can’t be true because I’m pretty sure Bush didn’t start running for re-election at least until he won the first time. I’m pretty sure.

So a few weeks have gone by and the excitement of the elections have faded, like an orange “We’re Number 1!” foam finger after a few years of sitting in a trophy case. The results and statistics have been picked over as obsessively as Rain Man counting toothpicks, and all those fancy analysts have come to the same conclusion: Bush got more votes.

In California, though, one group did far better than the President and his party at the polls. In fact, this group went undefeated on November 2nd in California in more than 100 races around the state, most of the time with more than 60% of the tally. Who could this political powerhouse be? The Free Pizza and Firecrackers Party? The Coalition to Put Root Beer in Our Drinking Fountains? Citizens Against Celine Dion? While those would certainly all do well at the polls, none of them could expect a clean sweep. So who could this ultra-successful, super-popular bunch of wise, good-looking, and competent heroes be?

Incumbents. Yes, the tribe of well-meaning stumblebums who represent California in Washington and Sacramento, from both political parties, managed to go 153 and 0 on November 2nd. Not a single incumbent lost. Where there were open seats, the winner came from the party of the outgoing member, all 36 times.

For a group of people with a reputation for driving the state into energy crisis, accidentally hiring 60,000 new state employees, and spending their time regulating tanning booths and text books, their sudden transformation from Bad News Bears to New York Yankees (pre-fold) strikes me as strange. How did these people suddenly get so good at something? After all, the official motto of the California State Assembly is: “Mediocrity is its own Reward.”

On second thought, that might not be its official motto, if by “official” you mean sanctioned by them and committed to the public record. Of course, if by “official motto” you mean “obvious wisecrack carrying a painful truth” then, yes, it is their official motto. They may be decent human beings and earnest public servants (or they may be boneheads…you can’t generalize), but it’s just not a group that would impress you. If they were a fifth grade school class visiting your dairy or matchstick factory on a field trip, you’d worry about the future. If they were graduating seniors and you were making a commencement speech, you’d lay off the big words and try to explain the world using SpongeBob as a metaphor. That way, they’d at least get something out of high school.

So how did they win all those races? They all cheated. Scoff if you will, but it’s true. They didn’t cheat the decent, old-fashioned way, by stuffing the ballot box using dead and imaginary voters, or by sending pipe-carrying thugs to break the legs of the opposition. They didn’t even buy off election officials to count the ballots over and over again “until they came out right” the way a self-respecting crook would.

Instead, they all got together in 2001 and just re-drew the lines that defined their districts. Who needs constituents that don’t already agree with you? Just draw a line around those people and put them in the next district. In return, that district can give you some of its misfits. The system works! And since you’ve never really got to worry about losing, you can pretty much delete all emails that start with anything other than, “Dear Representative Soforth. I totally agree with you on everything and have no complaints whatsoever…” As for people from that other party, they’ve done nothing for you and since you’ll never need their vote, you might as well compare them to Hitler as often as possible.

One commentator said that we used to have a system where the voters picked the politicians, but that now the politicians pick the voters.


Don’t let this totally un-American idea completely harsh your Holiday mellow, however. People are thinking about how to make local elections at least as meaningful as the voting on American Idol again. Even Governor Schwarzenegger has said that he thinks the girlie-men and girlie-women of the Assembly could benefit from working their pathetic, flabby political muscles in more competitive races.

Until then, just consider yourself honored to be a constituent in your congressional district. And if you happen to disagree with the party representing you, do us all a big favor.

Keep it to yourself.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Letter From California-November 22, 2004

There’s breaking news from the world of law this week: physical activity can be dangerous. It’s true, and I know you’re shocked. Were you aware that moving around at high speed and doing things, while fun, could also lead to contact with other objects? This in turn leads to danger and should be avoided at all cost.

Surprisingly, it’s not a California court that is considering banning dodge ball from the state’s schools this week. It’s New York, but there’s enough playground craziness right here in the Golden State that I feel ok writing about it anyway. The New York court is considering the case of a 7-year old girl who hit the ground playing dodge ball and broke her elbow. The girl’s lawyers argue that the school should never have allowed dodge ball to be played because it’s just not a safe game for children to be playing.

Of course, they’re completely right. Dodge ball is a game of terror, humiliation, pain and revenge. It’s terrifying because usually there’s some sixth grader with five o’clock shadow, a couple “social promotions” and a howitzer for an arm who wants to turn your face into a TV tray. You can’t try to reason with him, because he’s pure, class-failing evil. It’s painful because a big red recreation ball, though soft and spongy, has nevertheless a mostly negative effect on nose cartilage. It’s humiliating because dodge ball is typically played in large groups of, say, 500. That means your unconscious and bloody trip to the Health Room on the shoulders of two gym teachers will be the subject of lunchroom chatter for days to come.

Ah, but what about the revenge? Inevitably, your reconstructive surgery will be a success and you’ll be back in the game. Someday, you’ll find yourself holding the ball and Mr. Facial Hair will be cowering from your wrath. Or maybe that won’t work out, and you’ll have to wait until later in life, when you can hire him as a stock boy at your multibillion-dollar dodge ball factory. He’ll be the tragic victim of workplace “accidents” around the high-speed dodge ball testing air cannons. Then you’ll call him into your plush office and fire him. Then you’ll hit him with the cannons again.

So even though dodge ball is a very dangerous game that can be the cause of pointless and petty revenge-taking decades after the fact, these are important life lessons. If kids didn’t have the chance to work through the terror-pain-humiliation-revenge cycle at least a few times before college, no one would survive freshman year. Punch bowls would be poisoned. Frat houses flattened. Only the truly cruel and the lucky would make it to sophomore year. Compared to that, a little dodge ball vendetta seems cute.

More than even the therapeutic benefits of dodge ball, kids play it exactly because it’s dangerous and inappropriate. In fact, the very words “dangerous and inappropriate” passing the lips of a school administrator confer instant credibility to whatever’s being discussed. Get the principal of your local junior high school to say that studying the history of Prussia is “dangerous and inappropriate” and soon, all the kids will want one of those helmets with a tall red feather standing up on them. Then they’ll realize they were tricked and come after you with the air cannons.

Also, dangerous and inappropriate things are more fun, as a rule. If you doubt this, ask yourself why the three-person water balloon slingshot is marketed and sold. With it, you (and two of your hoodlum friends) can launch a water balloon about two and a half miles. Really, there are no uses for such a device that are safe or appropriate under any circumstances, unless the planet is being attacked by aliens who disintegrate when they come into contact with what we earthlings call “water.”

So banning dodge ball might save a few broken bones here and there, but at what cost? Soon, the only acceptable playground activities left will be non-competitive Spelling Bees, “I spy with my little eye”, and staring contests. The staring contests will be limited in length to 6 seconds per round so that no student’s self-esteem suffers when his or her eyes begin to sting or when he or she drops out because looking at the other person starts freaking them out.

It’s not just that you can’t shield kids from danger. Inevitably, kids grow up and experience real danger no matter what. If they’ve had a chance to run around the playground with some foamy-soft Nerf danger, they might just be better prepared for the treated rawhide and sharp corners of the real thing.

But I do recommend that before they leave for college, you should check their luggage to make sure they don’t have one of those big slingshots. They’ll get busted using that for sure.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Letter from California-November 15, 2004

Most people don’t know that the Japanese monster known to us as Godzilla is supposed to be a cross between a gorilla and a whale. The monster’s real name is “Gojira” which combines the Japanese words “Gorira” (Gorilla) and “Kujira” (whale), making “Gojira.” If I didn’t have this very important knowledge already, I would have guessed that Godzilla more closely resembled the love child of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and Wonder Woman, and I’m definitely thinking of the Linda Carter Wonder Woman from the 70s. She was more than a match for one T-Rex, so it seems as plausible a pairing as a gorilla and a whale.

Japanese moviemakers invented Godzilla shortly after World War II, and the big green guy has appeared in dozens of movies since then. Despite his age, he still brings a tremendous zest for life (or at least for eating Japanese cities) to what he does. Also, the people of Japan still love him. He’s a larger than life icon that still excites a crowd.

Funnily enough, you could say almost all of that about Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who visited Japan last week as part of a delegation of California businesspeople. Like Godzilla, Arnold was “invented” shortly after World War II by his Austrian parents, who happen not to be a gorilla and a whale. Like Godzilla, the people of Japan love him for his many movies, and even though he’s probably past his prime as a screen legend, this trip shows that the people still want to see him. Among other things, he’s there to remind the Japanese that it’s still cheaper to fly to California and shoot a round at Pebble Beach than it is to play golf in Japan and that we’d very much enjoy seeing their money visiting our state again very soon. They’re welcome to come too, of course.

A few years ago, when I lived in Japan, Schwarzenegger visited for another reason. He was there to film a commercial for a “vitamin drink” called “V.” In the ad, a younger Schwarzenegger appears as a kind of psychedelic samurai who moved across the stage doing a bizarre dance and chant. At the end, he holds up his two fingers and says “Bu-ee” into the camera. (The Japanese have a tough time with the ‘v’ sound, so that’s how the letter is pronounced.) The director apparently told Schwarzenegger that this performance was based on an ancient samurai ritual, when in fact it was created earlier that week as a ritual designed to humiliate rich and famous movie stars.

You might not realize it, but big time Hollywood stars frequently go to Japan to film commercials they wouldn’t want seen back in the States. Sean Connery, for example, used to hawk whiskey on Japanese TV. They set him up behind a bar and a big bottle of Suntory whiskey and fed him some crazy, half-nonsensical dialogue to say. In the end, it made him look like he was sitting at home by himself, pouring glass after glass of Japanese whiskey and babbling incoherently. Maybe it worked for Suntory, but I’m sure that part of Sean Connery’s agreement involved the eventual burning of the master tapes.

Why should the Japanese care what Schwarzenegger or any American celebrity has to say about whiskey, ramen noodles, or “vitamin drinks” designed to keep a Japanese businessman going at work on only 3 hours of sleep after a mandatory night out drinking Suntory whiskey with co-workers? I can’t think of any reason at all. Just because Sean Connery endorses a whiskey doesn’t mean it’s good. To get a look at him in that commercial, you get the impression he’d “endorse” cooking wine by about mid-evening if the bar went dry.

Yet Schwarzenegger is there, among other things, trying to convince Toyota to build its hybrid car factory in California and apparently, he’s not being laughed out of the room. Shouldn’t he stick to something less ambitious, like making sure no one sends a copy of his own bad Japanese commercial to his political opponents during the next election?

This week marks one year since Schwarzenegger took office, and in that time, the state has miraculously not broken off and fallen into the ocean because a movie actor has been in charge. In many ways, Schwarzengger has been very successful. He’s batting almost 1.000 on the ballot propositions he’s supported; he helped elect a President; and he still has a sky-high approval rating in a state where most people look for the word “republican” somewhere near “reptile” and “repugnant.” What gives? Shouldn’t one year of amateur governating have driven the state to the brink of social chaos? Aren’t we supposed to be longing for the steady, if unspectacular stewardship of a seasoned politico like Gray Davis by now? Doesn’t experience count for anything?

Sure, but experience battling killer robots, traveling to Mars, insulting Lou Ferrigno for his “spaghetti arms,” making a fortune in real estate, discovering your long lost twin, Danny Devito, and dancing like a loon in a phony samurai suit counts for something too.

At least, the Japanese seem to think so.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Letter from California-November 8, 2004

Stop and think about how far technology has come in the last 20 years or so. Do you remember the inconvenience of having to actually be inside a building to get a phone call? Or how about the nuisance of having to look at your date book to remember what was on your schedule rather than having an electronic beep to remind you? Then there was that old-fashioned Emergency Broadcast System that would break into the program and do that high-pitched sound whose purpose was to burst your eardrums as a way of getting your attention. That was terrible, but since it was during the Cold War, broken eardrums could have been the least of your problems. When that signal came on, you had to wait a few second before finding out whether or not you were going to be able to finish your episode of My Three Sons before the world as we knew it came to an end.

No matter how far technology goes in providing us with more and more gadgets that beep for more and more reasons, Nature has even more powerful ways of sending us important messages. Sure, a little computerized alarm might get you to look away from your game of computer Solitaire. Perhaps. On the other hand, if a Zulu Warrior shoots you in the neck with a blow dart, Nature sends you a signal in the form of extreme pain that you might want to put down the mouse and investigate.

Generally speaking, Nature discourages you from activities that might not be in your best interest by making them uncomfortable. Running, for example, must not be one of those things that we’re supposed to do all the time. Your dog, by contrast, can run all day and night, for no reason other than that he keeps thinking his shadow is an enemy dog sneaking up on him. Does he run for a few minutes and then stop, wincing in pain? Does he stand there, hunched over feeling humiliated at his inability to catch that phantom puppy? No, because unlike you, he’s supposed to run like that.

This morning, I got up much earlier than usual for a weekend day, woke up the whole family, put on athletic clothes, drove an hour through the semi-darkness and stood waiting in a chilly drizzle for almost an hour. I wasn’t alone either. Hundreds of other people who apparently didn’t get Nature’s email were there too. It was the warm-up area for a 5-kilometer road race. (Since the metric system has completed failed in this country except for measuring road races and 2 liter bottles of soda, I’ll go ahead and tell you that I did the math and 5k is 3.1 miles.)

California has a reputation for being full of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed athletic people who spend their weekends tormenting themselves with high-intensity recreation like bungee-jumping and high-altitude cliff diving. For all I know, that may be true, but in my case, I had driven 30 miles for the chance to move very slowly and painfully around a track, while much more gazelle-like people ran past me like I was a fire hydrant. As I walked through the parking lot before the race started, I got a feel for the fact that the competition in this race was going to be a little past my abilities. One tall, East African runner would have looked unhealthily skinny if it weren’t for all the muscles and his general air of being created in a lab to live 200 years and run really, really fast. Some of the women were so thin that if you looked at them in profile, they became invisible. I turned to my wing-footed six-year old son, also racing with me, and said, “Jake, I think I might lose this race.”

“What do you mean? Of course, you’re not going to WIN!”

“No, Jake, I think I might lose to everyone here…all 600 of them.”

He laughed, which wasn’t exactly reassuring. Somehow he wound up with the same rogue gene that these other people did. The one that makes them look like they’re enjoying a relaxing ride on the Disneyland Monorail as they tick off the miles with winning smiles on their faces. For most of us, of course, running three miles involves considerable pain, suffering and an intense concentration on the goal of not dying.

Well, I didn’t die, and I didn’t actually lose the race, thanks to the elderly and oversized people who kept me company at the back of the pack before I made my power move on them at the very end. Of course, it wasn’t 100% fair, since they had to push those dialysis machines and carry those oxygen tanks on their backs, and all I had to carry was myself.

Still, a win’s a win. Or more accurately, a non-loss to everyone else is a non-loss. Maybe I wasn’t super competitive in the race, but I learned a valuable lesson just by being there.

And that lesson is: as long as you can cross the line before they turn off the time clock, you might as well keep racing.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Letter from California-November 1, 2004

What happens when a million monkeys type on a million typewriters for a million years? It’s said that eventually you’re bound to end up with the complete works of Shakespeare. This image is supposed to make us realize that no matter how brainless someone might be, they will eventually say something worthwhile. I’ve always thought it was unfair to put people on the level of monkeys like that though. After all, one chimp acting alone could probably knock out Macbeth in monkey howls and ‘hoo-hoo-ha-ha’ screeches in a lot less than a million years. How would we ever know?

On the other hand, just talking a lot never guarantees quality. Maybe a million monkeys would eventually reproduce the Bard, but along the way, they’d accidentally type out the novels of Jackie Collins, the lyrics to all of Celine Dion’s music, and the script of every head-splitting episode of the frighteningly unfunny sitcom, Saved by the Bell. The suffering would be legendary. Worse than that “Tomorrow” song from Annie.

So the more you talk, the more you’re bound to say stupid things. Let’s say you have to talk about world events for 30 minutes a day. That’s not exactly easy, but with the people of earth obligingly killing, insulting and robbing each other with such vigor, 30 minutes should fill up fast. You can safely skip reports that Britney Spears might have gotten engaged to a houseplant over the weekend. Nothing’s been confirmed yet, but someone spotted a ficus in Beverly Hills shopping for a diamond ring so big that even J. Lo would consider it tacky.

If on the other hand, you have to talk about the news 24 hours a day, not only does Britney’s green ring finger make the telecast, you put on a panel of experts to provide “analysis.” It’s painful and bad, but you have a pretty solid excuse: I have to fill 24 hours of airtime a day.

So I have a little sympathy for the news folks covering this election. They’ve got about 30 minutes of real news and another 23 hours and 30 minutes of pointless yammering to do each day. Hey, it’s not easy entertaining insomniacs and the terminally unemployed. Nevertheless, I hold them fully accountable for the dumbest, most tiresome and laziest idea of the year: the so-called cultural differences between the Red States, voting for Bush, and the Blue States, voting for Kerry.

By the time you read this column, we will hopefully have re-elected the pretzel-eating idiot currently running the country. Or, with any luck, we’ll have picked the blow-dried pansy who’s been eating in the Congressional Cafeteria on your dime for the last 20 years. If we’re not so lucky, we’ll be playing Lawyer Ball for weeks to come, like a Bonus Round on the world’s longest, dullest, lowest-rated game show.

Supposedly, the distinction between red and blue states doesn’t just relate to voting. It relates to a much bigger culture clash that, according to the yammerers mentioned above, “divides us as a nation.” For example, in a Red State, you might buy your groceries at a Wal-Mart, whereas in a Blue State, your stovetop is more likely covered with copies of the Sunday Times and Chinese take-out containers. In a Blue State, you probably get your morning pick-me-up from a coffee house; the same is true in a Red State, but the House is probably Maxwell. In a Red State, you park your SUV right in front of your house, driving it to work, school or the mall almost every day. In a Blue State, you spend $90 a month to park your ’96 Celica under your building and drive it once a month to a weekend in a “country” of some kind: “wine,” “gold,” “Amish” or the like.

But here’s the shocking truth: right here in deep-blue California, about 9 out of 20 voters are likely to pull the metaphorical lever for the man from Crawford. Bush won’t win California, but losing 11 to 9 isn’t exactly the butt-kicking you’d expect in Tofu Taco eating California. Likewise, the same 9 or so out of 20 voters in tomato red Texas will sign up for four years of Kerry as Commander-in-Chief. Texas is supposed to be a lock for Bush and California the same for Kerry, but at 11 to 9, a field goal still wins it. It’s that close.

This means that as you drive the country roads of your Red State, making your way to the church barbeque, almost half the people who pick the pig with you will be voting for Kerry, because their conscience tells them that’s the right thing to do. Likewise, as you ride the subway to a Martini Reception in your Blue State, please note that nearly every other person in that subway car with you prefers their martini with gin instead of vodka, and wants Bush to stay where he is, because they think it’s better for the country.

My election week advice is this: vote, but then enjoy your time with friends and neighbors. Have some barbecue and a martini for me and relax. America can stand four years of either of these yahoos at the wheel. We’re a nation of yahoos, after all, and that makes us resilient. You’re not from a Red State, and you’re not from a Blue State, and Washington and Lincoln are not rolling in their graves because of either of these guys. We’ve got some serious problems that the next Prez is going to have to deal with, but we always have. And we always will. By the way, he’s going to need your support.

Whichever of these Old Money, Yale-Educated, sons of famous New England families who just happened to belong to the same social club in school wins.

Oh, yeah. Huge cultural differences.