Strangers in a Familiar Land

High-Speed Rail?

California sits in a time warp. Despite tax hikes that make our roughly 10% income tax and 10% sales tax among the highest in the nation, there is little to show for it during the last forty years. I drive often the 20-mile sector of the 99 between Selma and northern Fresno. The freeway -- one of the 99’s best sections -- is unchanged since I drove it 41 years ago as a high-school junior in 1970, except that it is now crowded, with massive semi-trucks permanently hogging the center lanes, whereas in 1970 it was a near-empty futuristic investment that allowed cars to zoom along unchecked at 70mph. (Again, our sector of the 99 is a model three-lane stretch, not nearly as bad as the nightmarish two-lane, cross-traffic sections to both the north and south.)

A contemporary culture that cannot finish a forty-year-old planned three-lane freeway from Sacramento to Bakersfield has no business borrowing tens of billions to attempt a new high-speed rail corridor. It is characteristic of our present generation to dream and talk wildly of the non-essential as penance for neglecting the very doable and necessary. An alien who landed at a UC campus in 1971 and studied the students and faculty might not be surprised on his return to California in 2011 that things are what they are, given that cohort has finally came of age and taken over the reins of governance. An entire generation that had once defined itself in opposition to “them” has problems when “them” are mostly buried.

Fossil Hunting

My weekend drives up the road 168 to the Sierra National Forest are similar: I gaze out at the road, the dams, the lakes, and powerhouses, and notice they remain almost identical to what I remember four decades ago, as if we are now some sort of Dark Age Greeks wondering in amazement at the deserted Lion Gate at Mycenae, fabricating myths that the “gods” or “Cyclopes" built such strange wonders, whose mechanisms and operations only a priestly sect still fathoms. I worry not just that we lack the politicians to replicate the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project, but perhaps even the same caliber of engineers and construction workers themselves. I am sure that we know the number of spots on every endangered newt in the San Joaquin River canyon, but would not have much ability to match the genius of those one century ago who drew for us power, irrigation water, and recreation from that powerful river. One anomaly: there are sections of beautiful 1960s/1970s built roads -- the four lane stretch on 168, or the four miles of well-engineered road to the Kaiser summit above Huntington Lake. But then abruptly they stop and are continued on by the much poorer roads that they were long ago designed to update, as if to say, “Nah, this was a bad idea, so we better stop.” Or: "Ok, you guys win, we'll quit."

The "Flagship" Universities

The UC and CSU systems in outward appearance haven’t changed that much in half a century, but no college president in either current system would bet his life that today’s random graduates of his campus could match exit test scores in math or English of their 1960s random counterparts (so much for all those cutting-edge new classes and brilliantly conceived "centers"). The effort to open the new problematic UC campus in Merced did not quite follow the long ago exemplar of Irvine or Santa Cruz: our forefathers simply built massive new campuses next to resort cities; we in contrast sue and file impact statements over starting on empty isolated ground. Half of incoming freshmen at CSU today require remediation; about half graduate in six years. Pick up an old catalog from the library and compare the course listings -- and the reason why jumps off the pages.

Then and Now

When I leave my farm, I pass by the Southern Pacific Railroad, the 99 freeway, and the small towns that dot that north-south corridor. Again, nothing much has changed in forty years -- except thousands of new tract houses and the closure of farm machinery businesses, truck-trailer plants, and hydraulic equipment factories. Again, a time traveler might think in 1970 people lived frugally but made lots of things in lots of factories, connected by hyper-efficient transportation; in 2011 they live much better, but why and how would not be perceptible to the naked eye, given their closed plants, congested potholed roads, and lack of new productive investment.

It’s Just Different?

I suppose Facebook and Twitter and the other assorted new social networks are our generation’s version of the now nearly extinct Masonic Lodge, Grange, Elks, and Kiwanis clubs. But for all their brilliance, they really are not; the former are solitary pursuits dependent on a reliable Wi-Fi signal; the latter were fleshy events, where one saw, met, and talked to real people. We are isolated in our homes and life is far more harried. Here I agree with the lament that today’s poor married couple is unimaginably strapped with daycare, two-income responsibilities, and paranoia about super-parenting that ranges from proper computer tutorials to ensuring a young family a granite counter and stainless steel refrigerator. In contrast, my grandmother's biggest moment of the day was ringing the cast iron chime at lunch, so all of us from all corners of the farm could flock to her wonderful communal lunches.

The Spoken Word

I confess to a bad habit. I have DirecTV satellite out here on the farm. But about once or twice a week I mostly watch only one channel and at one time slot: the Western channel in the late afternoon. They have a daily trifecta of Wagon Train, Paladin, and Gunsmoke. Last week the great Richard Boone was quoting Homer and Milton. Either the producers had writers who read literature or they expected that some of the audience did, or both. The plots are usually inspirational and moralistic -- and would hold today’s viewers’ attention for about thirty seconds. They lack the earthiness of contemporary police thrillers, but there is a nobility and simplicity of expression that ultimately is far more uplifting, asking audiences to aspire to elevate their culture rather than to remind us, in admittedly often brilliantly realistic fashion, just how sick we have become.

Of course, you object, that today life’s is far easier and better. It surely is. Technologically we sit on the collective work of a few giants over the decades. Our phones, computers, Internet, and HDTVs provide us with options unimaginable in my youth; take away Urocit and I would have kidney stones weekly. But why and how we deserved our electrical appurtenances are not so clear. Most of us don’t know anything about how they work; few grasp the nature of globalized trade or the mechanisms of how a tiny few engineering high priests in Silicon Valley create ingenious designs and outsource the fabrication to hardworking and meticulous Asian fabricators. The result is sometimes an anomaly: an illiterate gangbanger can, by folk instruction and tribal lore, become a master of iPhone apps, but not be able to read any of the small print manuals accompanying his phone. I see just that scene in action daily at Wal-Mart -- or better yet, the colored icons on today's electric checkout counters that allow one to see and punch at, rather than read or compute, a problem. Without bar codes, we would have mayhem: the more sophisticated the technology, the less educated those who use it. In place of a literate society, we need only a tiny literate cloister to invent and service inventions for the masses.

The look of us has changed as well. We are far more wealthy with far more goods and yet dress far more shabbily. We seem far more obese than a half-century ago, and yet, given our plethora of new drugs and procedures, also more long-lived. While the rarer fat person of a bygone age paid for his girth with thirty years less life than what we now take for granted, nevertheless our ubiquitous obese (despite far more knowledge about cholesterol, calories, and health) can live longer than yesterday’s thin and rugged. It is almost as if a select medical elite is dreaming up constantly new pills and operations -- from knee replacements to blood cleaners -- to allow us to live longer and heavier. The warehouse store's self-propelled shopping cart is ever more common.

The Ignorantly Rude

One thing that has surely changed is the end of shared manners and protocol. Drive up a one-land road in the Sierra: very few oncoming drivers know that the downhill driver must back up to a turnout and yield right of way to the uphill driver — or why that should be true. More often a middle finger or the greater tonnage substitutes. It is not just that we no longer teach Civics; we no longer apparently teach real driver training either. In a zero-sum, 24-hour day, our architects of race/class/gender therapeutic classes did not appreciate that for each sermon on a particular group’s particular grievance, something like how to shake hands or yield the right of way on a road had to give.

In winter, watching drivers trying to put on tire chains is often a spectacle. An entire generation has mastered video games but not how to prepare for two inches of snow. On our rare three-lane stretches of cross-state freeways, there is no old protocol remaining that semi-trucks stay in the right lane, sometimes pass in the middle, and never enter the left. Today I followed two trucks barreling along in the middle lane, who passed using the left and never entered the right. But that is small potatoes: nothing is more frightening that making your way around a weaving semi with eight wheels over the dotted lane line, only to look up at the driver text-messaging at 70 mph, with two trailers of 20-ton freight fishtailing.

Millions of Green Jobs

What scares me about contemporary America is the relative competitiveness of our workforce, especially many of the young. When our politicians sermonize about putting Americans back to work and keeping jobs at home, I wonder whether they appreciate that far too many millions of our young people simply cannot read well, and do not have the habits or industry comparable to their competitors abroad, or at least not at the commensurate pay necessary for them to live decently in America. Our emphasis is on either the government hiring people or jawboning reluctant employers to do so; but not whether society is turning out a literate, creative, and disciplined worker. Could we transmogrify the TSA personnel in our airports or those behind the windows at the DMV office into a high-tech sophisticated workforce, assembling world class sophisticated solar panels (“millions of green jobs”) superior to those found in Germany or Japan, or better-priced and made than what comes from China? I doubt it but pray that I am terribly wrong. (I grant there is a reason why Toyota or Honda might build a new auto plant in a Tennessee of still productive workers, but not so likely in a Fresno or Madera of high taxes, lots of regulations, and questionably skilled workers.)

Government, Inc.

Today I spotted in my weekly local newspaper three front-page headline stories: one, a former police officer pled guilty to a child pornography charge; two, the arrest of two city employees on charges of stealing our town’s steel manhole coverings to sell on the side to local scrap metal yards; and, three, a three-way fight between feuding city council members over conflict of interest charges made and refuted by each. Such chaos in the abstract is quite evident in the concrete when you see the town’s pulse and remember what it was in 1960.

As Juvenal reminds us, it is hard not to write satire.