Letter from California

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

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Letter from California-December 27, 2004

Like most people, you probably have about a quarter-ton of used wrapping paper stuffed into a refrigerator box out on your curb about now. You might even be feeling guilty that you’ve thrown away enough brightly colored litter to ruin a medium-sized State Park. Once when I was in elementary school, a classmate didn’t turn up for the first couple of days back from Christmas break. After much consideration, we came to the solemn conclusion that the missing kid, rather small and weiner-y anyway, had been accidentally discarded with the Christmas trash. How would anyone ever know, we wondered. When he finally showed up, we asked him what the Garbage Fairy looked like and why she didn’t leave him there with the Frosty the Snowman wrapping paper and the half-empty stewed tomato cans. Ok, I asked him that, and everyone else just piled on. Anyway, it taught him a valuable lesson: if he planned on visiting his mother’s relatives in Ohio again, he should expect to be teased about it.

In hindsight, it wasn’t a valuable lesson at all, but it seemed important that he know it at the time. It’s clear that Christmas Mischief had simply taken hold of us. Everyone pays attention to the long run-up to the Big Day, but we rarely discuss the phenomenon that happens among children once they’ve been armed with the toys, goodies, and weapons they’ve asked for. Imagine a seven-year old riding a shiny new bike, wearing Yu-Gi-Oh pajamas and an unscratched USC football helmet taking potshots at trees with his new air gun at 6:35 AM. It could only be Christmas!

I’ve noticed though that Christmas Mischief has gotten somewhat tamer over the years. In my own Santa Days, a cross between a Present Show and a Battle Royale always developed around 10 o’clock or so once all the neighbor kids brought their new stuff out to play. Fights broke out between various Star Wars action figures. NFL logo jackets were displayed as though we were walking the runways of Paris. One of my friends tells how his childhood buddy wanted to demonstrate the indestructibility of the portable radio that Saint Nick had just brought him by standing on it. Apparently, it had only been designed to take the full weight of a somewhat younger child, so it collapsed like a Jenga puzzle. My fourth grade pal, Mike, took the award for simplicity though. It seemed like every year, some pyromaniac relative of his thought firecrackers made a fine gift. Mike just strolled through the neighborhood lighting them one by one and tossing them onto the porches of decent people. Danger was afoot, all thanks to Christmas Mischief. Of course, we might well have looked tame compared to previous generations. My friend’s father-in-law, for example, tells of taking his Christmas pellet gun to the railroad tracks. He waited until the freight trains rolled by and shot at “tramps” through the doors of the railroad cars as they helplessly went past. Now that’s Christmas Mischief even Firecracker Mike couldn’t match.

Perhaps my own kids haven’t gotten old enough to exhibit the symptoms yet, but so far, we’ve seen almost no tormenting of vagabonds, firebombing of neighbors, or destroying of radios. Milder symptoms have appeared, however. No sooner had my son broken out the new Monopoly board that I noticed he had something in his hand. It was a paintbrush for Making His Own Plate. He barely understood what “Community Chest” was and he had already moved on to other presents. No sooner had he set the correct time and date on his electronic bookmark than he was already cropping his little sister out of photos he’d taken with his new camera. His thimble was just a few spaces away from my hotel on St. Charles place and I was tired of waiting for him to roll. Just then, I heard a medium-sized crash from the bedroom. I ran in to see my 25-pound daughter falling off a portable radio. Apparently, it was built to withstand the weight of a preschooler, so the damage was light.

Christmas Mischief in the age of car seat laws and Gymboree may have become a watered-down version of what it was before, like Yoo-Hoo compared to chocolate milk. Whether that’s good or not depends on your point of view. As a parent, I’m relieved that I won’t have to spend Christmas morning explaining to Homeland Security why my son and his armed and helmeted band of bike-riders put a mysterious green Play-Doh-like substance in the Reservoir. As a kid, I might want to kick up my heels a little more than going straight to the Intermediate level Brain Teasers and skipping those Basic puzzles. Then again, I don’t really want them firing on the homeless or stomping on the Home Audio equipment either. It’s a conundrum, so I’ll just keep my eyes on it next Christmas.

One year heavier, my daughter’s almost sure to take another run at that radio.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Letter from California-December 20, 2004

I can remember the exact moment I decided I’d had enough of the cold weather. It was January of my junior year of college in Massachusetts. I was standing in student parking next to my dorm, hacking my way through a small glacier that had developed in the lot overnight. It had covered everything, including my 1974 International Scout, which you can think of as the prehistoric grandfather of today’s SUVs, without all the comfort, safety, or reliability. I was carrying an ice scraper and wearing about 40 pounds of clothes. It was dark, and after several minutes of scraping, shaving and frustrated stabbing through the ice, I was still only down to the Jurassic layer. I might have come across a fossilized mammoth at any second, but it was going to take a while to excavate the Scout. Even after I did, the old thing tended to be temperamental getting started in such weather. I gave myself credit though. After all, I was five years older than the car and I was already up. Despite my advanced age, I dug a tunnel through the ice, climbed onto the vinyl bench seat and turned the key.

Usually, disappointment followed in the form of the Scout not starting. After several tries, I’d pop the hood and climb out. I had this little trick to get the engine going when the temperature dropped to 150 below like it had this morning. I’d just siphon a little gas out of the tank, unscrew the air filter, pour a little around the filter, then pour the rest of the gas all over the engine and set the whole front of the car on fire. After a few minutes, this warmed the engine sufficiently that I could get it cranked up. I’d worry about the raging engine fire once I had the heater kicking in. After a little while, the engine would be warm enough that I knew it wouldn’t stall. I’d pass this interval either listening to the radio or reading the entire Old Testament. It took a while. Finally, the car would be ready to go and all I had to worry about was putting out that engine fire before the gas tank exploded.

Ah, the good old days. I immigrated to Southern California because I never wanted to have to torch my car in order to drive it ever again. In fact, I never even really wanted to have to put on a heavy sweater again if I didn’t feel like it. I believed the Beach Boys when they said that L.A. was the land of the “Endless Summer,” so I mothballed the ice scraper for good. I’m a little rusty on Ecclesiastes without all the extra reading time, but all in all, it was a good trade.

Here’s some advice: never trust a group of old surfer hippies. Los Angeles actually gets cold. I had envisioned people hanging around their beach houses drinking frosty beverages in total comfort and wearing only loincloths in mid-January. Imagine my horror when I learned that sometimes, you can’t do that. Usually, but not always. I felt like I was back in the parking lot glacier, digging out that Jurassic-era SUV with a pitiful Phillips 66 ice scraper.

Ok, that’s not really what I thought. First, I had safely repressed that horrible memory until I needed it again as the source of material for a wisecracking column. Also, it’s a bit of an exaggeration because people like the cold weather here when it comes. It’s just chilly enough that you can put on the goofy reindeer sweater your Great Aunt gave you without bursting into flames like an International Scout. Yet, the weather’s warm enough that you can take it off without freezing as soon as Great Auntie goes back to the Home.

My own kids have no idea about cold. To them, snow is just another Special Effect. Even my one-year old dog starting barking angrily and running in circles when, for the first time in his lifetime a few weeks ago, water started falling on him from the sky. Where was this impudent person with the hose who was so determined to soak him? Rain was something he’d just never counted on.

But, as with so many things in California, we seek the best of both worlds. Do you really have to suffer the inconvenience and discomfort of bad weather just to have a little Winter Wonderland? It turns out not. In fact, I’ve seen two approaches to breaking this vicious cycle recently.

Approach one: visit the snow. When the arctic wind chill factor took L.A. temperatures down into the high 50s a week or so ago, we noticed our dog was barking at the sky again. Rain and chilly temperatures here could only mean one thing in the mountains above us: the slim possibility of light snow. We drove 30 minutes up the Angeles Crest Highway, and just as we reached 5000 feet in elevation, tiny snowflakes started hitting the windshield. My kids asked me if this was real snow, and I said yes. They asked me a second and third time and I said yes. They just couldn’t accept that this was really happening. It’s as if you woke up at 2 on Christmas morning and walked out to your living room, only to see a fat stranger in a red suit putting presents under your tree. It might look real, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to believe it right away. Soon the white stuff was everywhere and they were snowball fighting like pros. We had our fun and got out of there just before a fast-moving glacier absorbed the SUV behind us.

Approach two: bring the snow to you. A couple days ago, the local country club imported a bunch of mountain snow and spread it around their parking lot in giant piles. You might call this Takeout Snow. Hey, at least we drove into the mountains. I had to turn on the rear defrost in the car. It was rugged. These people, they just rollerbladed down to the club in their loincloths and built a snowman. Is that fair?

No, it’s not, but that’s really the whole idea. Right now in Massachusetts, some poor kid is discovering the ‘set your car on fire to start it’ trick for the first time. Congratulations, young man. I admire your guts. You’re a fellow of great fortitude.

On the other hand, if you’re in that same parking lot reading Deuteronomy and holding an ice scraper once you graduate, I have another word to describe you.


Monday, December 06, 2004

Letter from California-December 6, 2004

Here in California, you can always find unsavory and wild-eyed crazies by going to a Target department store. For some reason, half-baked loons with less-than-half-baked ideas have taken to congregating right in the doorway, where shoppers will either have to stiff-arm them out of the way or listen to their ravings. At the Holiday season, many people won’t have the spare energy to confront an “activist” on a gingerbread mochacchino high, so they opt to spend a couple of minutes hearing the person’s spiel and then responding to their bizarre pleas. Yes, there are a lot of stray animals, but no, I don’t think homeowners should be forced to adopt them and pretend they’re human children. Yes, illegal immigration is a problem, but no, I don’t want to give you money to pass a law saying people from other countries must walk backward and speak in opposites for the first five years in the U.S. I just need to buy a giant bottle of laundry detergent, and a $30 wine rack. And maybe a George Foreman grill and some sodas.

Inevitably, these folks don’t give up, and customers end up having to stiff arm them anyway, sending them tumbling backward into their campaign literature, which, it turns out, was just a few stacks of takeout menus from the Falafel and Gyros restaurant across the street. All in all, this is a pretty intense scene, and while knocking over freaks to avoid having to hear their crackpot opinions can be fun, it’s also a nuisance. Especially when you’re just trying to pick up a three-pack of Nerf footballs and some Homer Simpson pajamas.

So it’s about time that Target got tough with one of these groups. With all their bell-ringing, and ho-ho-hoing, and collecting all that money for the needy, the Salvation Army really does get on your nerves right about this time of year, doesn’t it? Yes, of all the miscreants, low-lifes and nitwits that hang out in front of Target, the Salvation Army is the group the company kicked out for the Holidays. Leave the Vegetable Rights Bridgade and the White Pride Society alone, but the Salvation Army has just got to go.

A little tough to figure, don’t you think? Under normal circumstances, someone standing on a corner and ringing a bell in your ear might annoy you, but at Christmas, the Salvation Army makes it sound festive. The change practically jumps out of your pocket and into that red kettle.

You might even say that the Salvation Army is as much a part of Christmas shopping as the Declaration of Independence is a part of American history. That would show what you know. A teacher in a public school in Cupertino (yes, it’s just outside of San Francisco) is suing for the right to distribute the Declaration of Independence in his U.S. History class.

Why, you ask, should a history teacher need to sue for the right to use the Declaration in history class? Because he was forbidden to do so thanks to the Declaration’s mention of “God” in several places. Actually, the teacher claims that he distributed the Declaration and talked about the religious beliefs of the founding fathers in response to a student question about the recent Supreme Court case about the Pledge of Allegiance. No matter! Any material, even the founding document of our entire nation, that discusses God won’t be permitted by the Cupertino schools. If students have an interest in American history, they should find a more appropriate place for their little hobby than American History class. It sounds strange, but if you think about it, you can see where they’re coming from.

They’re coming from Crazy Town. Cupertino school administrators should be setting up card tables with takeout menus on them at Target stores and trying to convince customers that it’s time to take the history of the U.S. out of U.S. History and replace it with episodes 4, 5 and 6 of the Star Wars series. That’s the level of deep thinking going on there.

Meanwhile, in Sacramento, Governor Schwarzenegger has undone something that it took a weenie like Gray Davis to do. For several years, the State had a “Holiday Tree” which looked suspiciously like a Christmas tree. Davis, it seems, thought that Christmas would be so much better if only we didn’t mention the “Holiday” we were celebrating by lighting a gigantic tree. That’s the kind of political brilliance that made him loved and respected all across the State…or something like that. Arnold says that as long as he’s governor, it will be a Christmas tree.

And historians in Cupertino will record that in 2004, California Governor Luke Skywalker thanked The Force for a year of blessings as he lit the State’s official Jedi Tree with his mighty light saber.