Letter from California

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

Monday, March 28, 2005

Letter from California-March 21, 2005

Here I thought it was just my imagination, but it turns out it’s true: California’s kids are big. Local department stores have installed Batman-style red phone hotlines to the “Husky” clothes factories. The State has spent a fortune doubling up the swingset chains to prevent humiliating crashes. Burger joints near high schools brace themselves at 3 pm for an onslaught like something from a Hitchcock movie, plus acne and bad music. Oh so bad music.

In fact, one of our state legislators, Martha Escutia from Norwalk, near Los Angeles, claims that 25 percent of middle schoolers are overweight. I take issue with those statistics. I’ve been in middle schools, and it looks like a casting call for “Hansel and Gretel” in there. If three quarters of middle schoolers are in good shape, they must be absent every time I drive by a school. Probably out exercising. The whole problem is exaggerated, I’m sure, by the craze for tight low-rider jeans and shirts that don’t make it down to the belt line. Not a world-renowned authority on fashion, I do have one piece of advice that ought to be in a magazine: that look ain’t for everyone. Some things never go out of style, but others, like dangling belly fat, never, ever come in.

So Assemblywoman Escutia has a plan: take the soft drinks out of California’s high schools. In 2001, she led the legislature to get rid of soft drinks in middle schools, and now she’s back for more. At a glance, it’s a pretty sensible idea. California owns and runs these schools after all. Why should it contribute to the porkification of the next generation? Aren’t we the state with the health nut governor after all?

Students predictably aren’t thrilled, and they make a powerful counter argument. Actually, it’s a pretty pitiful counterargument, using the “no way” defense, followed by some cursing. By that point, they’re out of breath, so the argument ends.

It’s pretty clear, then, that the adults, with full access to sugared soda guaranteed by State constitution, will prevail on this issue, but that doesn’t stop them from saying amazingly dumb things about it. For example, the Pasadena Star-News published an editorial on Sunday supporting Escutia’s plan, but warning that “in California high schools, the approach should not be negative.” I guess that means it should be positive. Do tell what you mean, Star-News. “For example, schools should find ways to serve positive alternatives to pizza and burgers.” What are they talking about? Sloppy Joes? Filet Mignon? All-candy lunches? Days of fasting for school spirit? It continues, saying “some schools are already serving healthy fare such as salads, why not all?” Aha! Salad is a positive alternative to Pizza. Well, maybe. What do you think would happen if we polled the staff of the Pasadena Star-News and asked which item they positively would prefer for lunch: pizza or salad? By the way, what kind of salad are we talking about here? Fried Chicken Salad with honey mustard dressing or just some romaine leaves and a dash of vinaigrette. It makes a difference!

I say the Star-News has it all wrong. The right approach for California schools might just be to go negative on this thing. Let them eat endives, that’s what I say. After all, people in California pay top dollar to be abused in just this way at things called “Boot Camp” fitness programs. The idea is that a tough-talking trainer puts you through a high-priced hell so that you’ll actually lose the lard you’ve packed on over the years but were too lazy to do anything about yourself. Even though it’s expensive, it’s really a bargain when you consider that for your money, you don’t just get the weight loss. You get humiliation, abuse, and shame thrown in for free.

So why not just make the California schools an extended fitness Boot Camp? The kids might load up on Krispy Kremes once they get home, but for the eight hours a day they’re at school, they’ll workout like Billy Blanks from TaeBo and they’ll eat like a runway model threatened with job loss for breaking a buck-oh-five on the scale. By the time they graduate, they’ll be so accustomed to lean living that Pepsi will seem like a special occasion dessert, not something to wash down a King Size bag of skittles. They’ll be so used to diced celery and tuna salad with low-fat mayo that the sugar in a slice of chocolate cake with make their teeth hurt. Soon, California will be right back in shape. Heck, we’ll probably challenge Arizona to an arm-wrestling tournament.

Or the kids will go bonkers and eat cans of frosting with a spoon while watching Jerry Springer as an after school snack. It could go either way.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Letter from California-March 14, 2005

As a rule, people don’t like eating poison. We put up with it sometimes, but given a choice, most would just as soon pass as knowingly scarf down something toxic. We’re a sensible species that way. Of course, we all know that the foods we eat have various nasties in them, either because of the pesticides used to grow watermelons to the size of Mini-Coopers or some chemical that causes candy to be bright pink. It’s not a color that shows up in nature too often, so if you see bright pink pressed into the shape of a fish and covered with sugar granules, it’s a good bet what you’re eating didn’t grow from a tree.

In times past, people might have worried a little bit less about this. During the 50s, for example, I’m pretty sure you could buy a countertop appliance that would bomb your casserole with a stiff dose of nuclear radiation. The idea was that living things, collected freely from nature, tended to get dirty, and if they got dirty, germs and so forth could be the result, and that might be unhealthy. If, however, you just hit the family’s dinner with a deadly blast of radioactivity, the food would become free of anything natural, and therefore be safe for you to eat.

Or maybe I read that in a comic book. Anyway, in the 60s and 70s, there was something called a “green revolution” wherein anything that could be done to grow more food was done. If putting cows on steroids and a rigorous workout schedule that alternated weight training with Aerobicise made them give more milk, then by golly, somebody would find cow-sized leg warmers and get the whole thing started. Of course, it wasn’t usually something as wholesome as diet and exercise for the cows. More often, it meant soaking the cows in cyanide or giving them enough steroids to make Barry Bonds nervous. In short, they got exposed to all kinds of weird drugs and treatments whose side effects wouldn’t be known for years to come. Until about now-ish actually.

Modern day California has an answer of sorts to this issue: organics. Organic crops are certified by the State of California to be grown within a set of guidelines. First, the crops must be raised under the strict supervision of a hippie. Now, just because you haven’t showered in a couple days and always wear the same gamy-smelling poncho doesn’t make you a certifiable hippie. You actually have to be able to produce something out of the ground that people would want to consume without using any of the poisons that so many growers are fond of. Being a successful organic farmer isn’t easy, but the reward is that yuppie moms all over California will choose your earth-loving products to take home to their kids in the back of their luxurious and energy-efficient SUVs.

Nevertheless, organics have gotten serious. In some cases, a discriminating consumer simply won’t lay out good money for crops grown the “conventional” way. Because of this, Mendocino County, in northern California, recently asked the State to certify some of their bounteous marijuana crops as organic. Uh, the State pointed out, you guys know Marijuana is illegal, right?

Oh, yeah, Mendocino County replied. Then, unexplainably, they broke down into giggles.

That’s one of the downsides of being the master of this particular crop. You probably get confused about things like this a lot. Asking the State to certify the crop sounded like a great idea when they first thought of it at 2 in the morning. Another downside is that you also have to put up with Woody Harrelson dropping in on you all the time raving about the many benefits of hemp and then asking you where the good stuff is. That acts gets tired really fast.

You have to love, or at least be amused by, the simple honesty of this pitifully failed attempt to get the State’s seal of approval on something that’s completely illegal. Mendocino County is pretty far out in the boonies, and apparently, marijuana grows by the acre in the backcountry there. It’s easy to imagine how living out there for a while could cause you to forget about things like laws or brushing your teeth. Trust me when I say that this wasn’t a stunt designed to get publicity for the “unfairness” of the laws against Marijuana. That kind of things takes a lot of energy, and for the marijuana farmers of Mendocino to stage something that elaborate would be like Scooby and Shaggy going into a haunted house without being offered Scooby Snacks in return. Very unlikely.

So for the time being, the wacky weed coming in from Mendocino County may or may not have been blasted with DDT as far as you know. Blame it all on the squaresville State of California, who totally harshed their certification mellow.

Something tells me that in this case, unlike at your local California grocery store, sales won’t suffer.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Letter from California-March 7, 2005

It’s a familiar enough story. First, there’s peace, and then somebody does something stupid. Human nature being what it is, no stupid gesture goes unanswered, so the other side responds in kind. In fact, it’s not enough just to match what the first side has done; the second side must prove that it can do something even more spectacular and futile. Soon, you’ve got an arms race: if they come at you with knives and chains, it’s only natural to come back at them with guns. Of course, you realize you’ll be defending yourself from tanks and bombs next time, but you’re confident that when your turn comes up again, you can probably whip up something nuclear if you really have to.

Yes, it’s the Birthday Party Death Race. Remember when Mom could bake a Duncan Hines cake, put up some crepe paper in your favorite color and call it a party? Try that now and you might get a visit from Social Services. Party games when I was 7 consisted of dropping clothespins into a wide-mouth jar for accuracy and pinning homemade tails on a homemade donkey. Don’t get me wrong. We loved it! We counted ourselves lucky that we weren’t at one of those birthday-parties-of-the-less-fortunate where the games were even more basic, like Walk a Straight Line While Dizzy or Guess How Many Fingers I’m Holding Up.

If any of the kids my son hangs out with were to read this, they’d have one question: what’s a clothespin? If I told them, they’d realize that birthday parties must have been a little different in those days if you could do most of your party prep by walking out to the backyard clothesline. Nowadays, there’s a whole store devoted to your partying needs. It’s called Party City, which is funny because that sounds really sarcastic to me, like something you say when you realized the highlight of the birthday get together was the clothespin game. “Party City,” you’d mutter in disgust.

For some of the parents we encounter though, Party City just isn’t enough. I’m not sure an entire Planet devoted to parties would fit the bill, when they’re after something more like a cross between a carnival and a personal fashion statement. A fun time for a seven year old with his or her friends, a little cake, a few presents…that’s all very dated. Instead, they treat the kid like he’s being given a Lifetime Achievement Award. “Today, we gather to celebrate Bobby. There’s a film retrospective of the highlights of his elementary school and T-Ball career, including some outtakes from when we first met him in pre-school and at Gymboree. Yes, he’s really become an household name among the other kids at his school, so we’ve included in your gift bags some commemorative mugs from today’s party and a DVD copy of Bobby blowing out the candles to take home.” I’ll treasure them always.

Also, I’ve learned that you can’t have a party in anyplace that’s unbearably dingy or unglamorous. Home, for example, is completely out. Also, forget about parks, lakes or picnic areas. In fact, as a general rule, if the location isn’t Zagat-rated, you might as well tell your kid his birthday party is going to be held in a dumpster. How can you expect him to do well in school, maintain his self-esteem and still manage to get in five hours a day on the Game Boy if you’re having his birthday party in a dumpster…I mean, at home?

If you don’t want the Lower Elementary set to start thinking of you the way we used to think of the kids who couldn’t afford clothespins, you’d better upgrade. Use miles if you have to. Re-fi the house if you must, but just to be on the safe side, you might want to hold the party at the Museum of Fine Arts. It’s probably not that expensive just to get them to close the place for the day. It wouldn’t be fair for the other patrons to have to deal with the kids as they run screaming through the galleries with frosting on their hands. Best to let them do that in private.

The cake, of course, must comprise anything other than flour and icing, or if it does, you must find a way to pay $120 for it. Stuff it with five-dollar bills if you can’t think of anything else. Finding something to entertain children during the party is a challenge, but if you follow these simple steps, you can do it too. First, pretend you’re a six year old. Now imagine a thing that would normally interest you, like a magician or a puppet show or ponies. Second, change that entertaining thing around until it suits the taste of a 38-year-old woman who got a Bachelors of Fine Arts from Michigan State.
This one simple step guarantees that it will be enriching to their developing young minds and that they’ll be so bored that some of them will be trying to tunnel out of the building by the mid-point of the show or if they’re boys, that they’ll start punching each other in the head and need to be emergency-dosed with Ritalin. Finally, be sure that the check you write for this entertainment is 3 to 4 times more than any reasonable person would pay to entertain a handful of children at a birthday party. (3 to 4 times is a minimum, by the way.)

And when that special day is over, you’ll only get a few minutes peace. It’s still early in the Birthday Season and prices only go up from here. Rumors are swirling that one of the 2nd graders is having his birthday party on the Mir space station. Start thinking now of how you can convince NASA to do that manned Mars mission ahead of schedule.

Or, you can do what I’m doing and stock up on clothespins.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Letter from California-February 28, 2005

Years ago, when “Governator” was just a typo, California had another colorful chief executive in Sacramento, Jerry Brown. He never battled shape-changing robots from the future and he wasn’t Danny Devito’s long-lost twin, but he did date Linda Ronstadt during the 70’s. Flashing back to some of her album covers from the era (I think one involves the wearing of roller skates), that’s not too bad.

He also had a nickname: Governor Moonbeam. He got this name for the generally hippified approach he took to running California, rather the opposite of our current Humvee driving Chief. Brown got to be known as a little bit out there, and that really takes some doing in California. If you govern Montana, for example, you could get the nickname Moonbeam for having a salad instead of fries with your pulled pork sandwich, but in California, it’s no easy feat to make yourself stand out as a Space Cadet. Although personally well liked, not everyone thought Brown was serious enough for the Governor’s office, and perhaps his critics had a point. His major achievements while in office include dating Linda Ronstadt.

Most former Governors of California go one of two places when they leave office: the White House or their house. For that reason, some people were surprised when Jerry Brown ran for and won the office of Mayor of the City of Oakland several years ago. Oakland, if you’re not familiar with the place, can be thought of as Detroit with nice weather. It’s like New York City without all the things everyone likes about New York City, plus some palm trees. It’s a tough town with a reputation for high crime and poverty. Just the place for a Moonbeam Mayor.

So imagine everyone’s surprise when Jerry Bear started to get tough. He’s got more street credibility as a total softie than anybody west of Jimmy Carter, but once mayor, he decided enough was enough where shenanigans in the streets of Oakland was concerned. When college kids lay down in front of traffic to protest…something a couple years ago, Brown sent in the police, gave warnings and then laid on the rubber bullets. When the current Gov. went looking for friends to help him stop a proposition last fall that would have made the “Three Strikes Law” only apply to people whose last names start with Q and only on alternate Tuesdays, Brown stood up with Arnold and helped defeat the measure. Why, there’s a rumor that Brown travels the street by night in disguise as Captain Moonbeam, looking for citizens in trouble and criminals who must be brought to justice.

That rumor is completely false of course, and I know this because I made it up just now. Still, he’s been uncharacteristically, at least to those of focused on the “moonbeam” and Linda Ronstadt part of his resume, tough on Oakland’s bad guys. Recently, he launched a program where some convicted criminals could qualify for an early parole if they agreed to a curfew. He got the idea by observing that half of all Oakland’s murder victims were either on probation or on parole and most of them got killed at night. The San Francisco Chronicle quoted Brown as saying, “if we could find a way to keep them home at night, they wouldn’t be getting shot.” Of course, if you’re just a regular Oaklander who happens to work the graveyard shift at the Jack in the Box on 64th and Telegraph, you probably don’t mind that these villains are home watching late night reruns of Cheers while you’re counting the cash drawer at 2 AM either. As a result of this and other measures, Oakland’s homicide rate has dropped dramatically in a few short years. Moonbeam power!

Not everyone is happy about all this, and it isn’t just the criminals who are complaining. Honestly, though, other critics who’ve given Brown so much grief about all this should really consider switching to decaf. The Chronicle quotes one of them as saying that these probations are like laws during slavery that “prevented people of color from moving freely in their communities.” Since Oakland is a predominantly black and Hispanic city, I thought it was all those vicious crooks on the streets that were causing people of color not to be able to move freely through their communities. Silly me. Brown’s program doesn’t discriminate against African-Americans or Hispanic-Americans, but it is real pain in the butt for Criminal-Americans.

Back when I lived at the corner of 64th and Telegraph, I used to think twice about taking a late night stroll around the neighborhood, but usually just did it anyway. On the other hand, I didn’t have to close the Jack in the Box. Dangerous duty, that was, and you really shouldn’t have to risk your life for fast food. For a chance to date Linda Ronstadt in 1978, maybe, but not for Jumbo Jacks and curly fries. Living in Oakland, I remember feeling that everyone would have supported a politician that made the place a little safer.

I just never would have guessed that person would be Jerry Moonbeam Brown. It goes to show you should never judge a person by the nickname.