Letter from California

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

Monday, February 28, 2005

Letter from California-February 21, 2005

Back when I was growing up in the 70’s, if you’d asked me what the future, meaning right about now, would be like, I would have said something like the following: we’ll all be driving flying cars and vacationing on the moon, but we’ll be under non-stop attack from killer bees and the Metric system. Also, I would have been sure that by now, society would have totally collapsed. People then just took that for granted, which probably accounts for the bad hair and clothes. Who cares what you look like when hippies were coming to burn your house and eat your children any day now? Or maybe it was burn your children and eat your house. Either way, it was worrying enough to distract attention from the coast-to-coast lapels on your jacket or the hairmuffs covering your ears.

As a child, I picked up on this downer vibe, of course, and it caused me to misunderstand a common bumper sticker slogan. “Waste not, Want not” got plastered on light switches and in other places, as a way of reminding people that since society was down to its last few hours of juice, they might want to think twice about running their lava lamp full blast while simultaneously cranking up the 8-track. In my childish eyes, “Waste Not, Want Not” didn’t make any sense. I thought it meant that if you didn’t waste something, it meant you didn’t really want it. The concept had a certain ‘party-like-it’s-1999’ fatalism to it that generally went along with the times, so I figured that we were being urged to waste up now while we still could, because, you know, the hippies were coming. Party on, Department of Water and Power!

A few years later, in the early 80’s, I think it was Tuesday, I was running all the taps in the house and had all the closet lights on, and I realized I had it wrong. “Waste not, Want not” meant that if you didn’t waste, you wouldn’t go wanting. Well, the devil’s in the details, and I misunderstood; what are you going to do? I turned off the running water and started thinking about what a sensible idea that little bumper sticker was. Since then, I’ve admired the act of a squeezing every last bit of value out of resources so that you’ve got what you need in a crisis, like when you’re trapped inside your house by killer bees and the directions on your bee spray say to hold the can 15 to 20 centimeters from your head.

So one of my favorite trends of the last few years is hybrid cars. Earlier electric cars had to be plugged in overnight and traveled such a short distance on an 8-hour charge that it was easier just to use an extension cord. These cars, though, use regular gas, but stretch it farther by turning the engine’s motion into electricity. When you pull up to a light, the car doesn’t use any gas at all, for example. It makes it hard to intimidate the driver next to you when challenging him to a drag race, but that’s probably ok. Here in California, these cars have become somewhat common. You can see them quite a way off because they’re extraordinarily ugly, resembling a toaster with wheels or a skateboard with a cockpit. The philosophy there seems to be that if you’re willing to save energy, you should be willing to drive a car that makes you look like a geek. If you’re not that committed, well, maybe you’re just not ready to be driving a hybrid, buster.

I don’t agree with that philosophy. These cars are good for the environment, save fuel, and generally make a lot of sense. I think people who drive hybrids should get their choice of flames or the Tasmanian Devil painted on the hood of their car for free. As an alternative, perhaps a set of Boss Hogg-style longhorns from an organic cattle ranch mounted to the front of the hood, courtesy of the State of California.

Instead of fabulous prizes like these, some in the State government, inspired by Oregon’s example, are actually considering another way of punishing the energy efficient. Since California relies on gas tax, it takes a bite out of the budget when people buy less, so if hybrid cars take off, that’s a whole new problem. The solution? Tax by the mile. All this would require is equipping every car in California with a GPS tracker so that when you pull into the gas station, you’ll transmit the total miles you’ve driven since the last time you gassed up and pay the fee. This way, no matter how many miles per gallon you get, you’ll end up paying anyway. After all the State’s going to need that money to pay for the GPS units needed to do the program. You can understand why it’s important to do your part.

It makes me think that maybe I’m not the only one who didn’t understand that bumper sticker.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Letter from California-February 14, 2005

I was leafing through the local paper this week, when I started thinking about all the things I remembered that had never actually happened to me. The more I thought about it, I realized some of these things happened even before I was born. Yet there these imposter memories sit in my brain, like they own the place.

Before you stop reading and back slowly away from your paper, let me give you an example. Perhaps you might find there are one or two things you remember even though you never actually experienced them. Here’s one: remember how there used to be so many more trees? You could roam the wilderness for miles and miles, boring yourself to a stupor, without seeing anything but acre after acre of trees. It’s such a peaceful scene compared to today, in an America that has cut down its trees to build Taco Bells. It makes you long for the old days, like say, around 1920, when your father or grandfather or great-grandfather carried pails full of tadpoles back home from the creek (or crick, depending on which way you go on that word) through the mighty woods. Yes, those were the days.

See, I said you’d remember something you didn’t really experience. It gets worse though, because in this case, not only did you not experience it, it also doesn’t happen to be true. You might want to go see somebody about this or at least take one of the many available purple pills that deals with this kind of thing. To be specific, America has more trees now then it did back in 1920, according to the U.S. Forest Service in a report this week. A lot more. In fact, we’ve added enough forest land in the last 80 years to cover Rhode Island, a couple Super Wal Marts, and most of Puff Daddy’s cribs. At this point, we’re planting trees faster than we can cut them down. In fact, in some rural towns out here in the West, frightening stories have emerged of residents being driven from their homes near forests that have become completely overrun with trees.

It seems fair enough, since we tormented trees pretty well for so long. When the colonists arrived in the 1600s, they cut down trees for any reason or no reason at all: to build houses, to start fires for cooking, to clear land to grow farms, to make wooden shoes in case they had Dutch visitors, for decorative bird houses, to settle bar bets, for popular competitions like “Wood Chopping Idol,” and sometimes just for spite. If you think about it, not a lot of recreational options existed, so chopping wood was like Yoga class and a day at the office all in one. Plus, you had chopped wood for a birdhouse at the end.

So they chopped and they chopped their little hearts out right up until 1920, when the nation was all chopped out. Well, not really, but that was the low point for forests. Ever since then, we’ve had more and more forest land as the years have gone on, which means that most of us have lived our whole lives during a time of both growing forests and the convenience and great taste of Taco Bell’s Value Menu. Ok, convenience, anyway.

Of course, you might remember something that really did happen, but just not to you. In Palo Alto this week, an elderly survivor of World War II had an experience that reminded him of past discrimination against his people. According to an AP story, Herbert Kaiser says memories of the labels that had to be worn in Nazi Germany came back to him when he received a letter that put the word “Jewish” next to his name on the envelope. Who sent this sinister letter? Some shadowy neo-Nazi group? Not quite. Instead, it was the Alliance for Retired Americans, asking for money! The printer of the letters had accidentally put the religious affiliation of the recipients beside their name on the envelope.

Kaiser spent the war as an American submariner, so his memories of Nazis mostly involve sending a bunch of their rotten ilk to the ocean floor with torpedoes. This episode caused Kaiser to flash back to something he didn’t experience directly, but did have a hand in putting a stop to. In my book, he’s got a pretty solid right to be frosty about this little mix up. He’s the one who had to spend his prime girl-chasing years in a tin can underwater, setting the world straight.

Kaiser protested and the organization apologized. The United Farm Workers, who rented the list to the Alliance, said through a spokesman that, “even if it’s one that’s offended, that’s too many.”

Clearly, the group had no intent to offend anyone, so I think people will forgive them. I say that because if they wanted to offend people this way, it would be amazingly easy. Writing “John Jones, Catholic” on a letter might make people feel a little awkward, but just watch what would happen if you sent out a letter saying “Jennifer Jones, moderately overweight” or “John Jones, needs Viagra.”

It would be memorable, whether you were actually there or not.