The Remains of a California Day

Yesterday I think I understood why California is in deep trouble. Let me walk you through another day out here.

At 7AM I put a few letters in my armored, heavy-duty steel rural mailbox. Four thefts of mail in the last five years have meant my grandfather’s old light gauge unlocked box gave way to a quite impressive, smart-looking sort of locked safe -- the armor is a tasteful forest green.

(Ah, you, say, "Well, what would they want with bills and such?" Answer: "they" take a check you wrote to the power company, copy its template, take the router and serial numbers, make new checks with their name on it, and start cashing them at rural groceries. You only learn this when the canceled checks appear on your online banking: perfect replicas except the name at the upper left is some one else's, the numbers on the lower left unfortunately yours. This too has happened to me on occasion.)

So I bought this armored box after seeing a YouTube ad in which it withstood a barrage from an AK47-like rifle -- just what I need in rural Selma. (I understand to suggest that isolated rural mail theft is ipso facto a sign of anything worrisome is methodologically unsound.)

Anyway, back to the roadside: suddenly a car whizzed by the farm when I was putting the red flag up. Out came a huge plastic trash bag of wet garbage, littering the road and bouncing into the vineyard row — bottles, cans, letters, paper, and plastic diapers.

Was it just a coincidence — or a sign of defiance, since the usual trash throwers (e.g., sofas, beds, strollers, even a dead animal now and then) are nocturnal and discreet? The theory is that the tosser saves money by I suppose living in a garage somewhere without paid garbage collection, and sees that most pick up trash, so that those who throw it can't quite ruin the roadsides as is true elsewhere. This is an age-old truism: The miscreant escapes notice to the degree that there are few miscreants. When too many toss their garbage, then the environment is no longer so conducive to garbage tossing (the one 90  mph driver on the freeway gets away without killing himself or too many others because the others drive 65 mph).

I walked over to pick it up, but the raw food and mess convinced me to wait a few hours until it dried out. I will retrieve it tomorrow when the rain dries up, I promise.

Such unattended trash invites more, and is a health hazard. That the local ravens and blackbirds are feasting on it, is no reason not to pick it up. (No, one does not call the sheriff, the state EPA, or any agency for such incidents, even when the addresses of the bills of the tosser are quite often [I'll see tomorrow] found in the rubbish — been there, done that, no results.) (Yes, critics, I agree that anecdotal evidence like this means nothing much.)

At noon, I drove into the local warehouse supermarket. When I checked out (and I had written about such  incidents like this a near decade ago in Mexifornia), the checker and the woman behind me were trying to communicate in Spanish to instruct a young man and his wife (with four small children) about how to use his food stamp card (an anachronism since they look more like ATM plastic).

But he spoke some sort of Nahuatl indigenous dialect. It did not sound that much differently in its pitched accentuation from modern Greek. No Spanish-speakers could really make out much of what he was saying — and believe me they tried.

I suppose there are indigenous peoples’ translators at the government office, since the quite smiling and friendly family had two full carts and an expectation of paying for it, and (as I saw later) a nice enough car.

But, alas, neither husband nor wife could speak English or Spanish. (Yes, again, I concede that the presence of a few from Mexico who can speak neither Spanish nor English proves little, much less is evidence of the problem of illegal immigration.)

By 2 PM, the air was loud with sonic booms. Local tree managers were trying to  break up hail (I lost two crops in the 1980s to a sudden hail storm)— the current theory being that sonic waves will either smash apart, or at least divert for a few minutes, hail storms that can so scar the appearance of tree fruit to render it unsalable (but with absolutely no effect on its quality or tastiness — go figure).

In these environs, there are almost no more small farms as I knew them thirty years ago. Either they are like mine — now rented and dependent on off-farm income for expenses, since “rent” does not cover taxes and depreciation — or tesserae in larger vertically integrated corporate mosaics that need “product” (profitable or not) to fuel a vast investment in trucks, packing houses, cold storage, and brokerage.

I made the argument fifteen years ago, in Fields Without Dreams and The Land Was Everything, that the imminent final corporatization of family agriculture would not affect the appearance or productivity of farms, but only end the notion that these 20 and 40 acres homesteads used to grow citizens of a different sort that we see now (I think both prognostications were proven correct). (I agree again that the corporatization of my immediate environs proves nothing really without the latest statistics of corporate ownership versus family managed and owned farms.)

By three,  I drove up to the CSU Fresno Henry Madden Library to get a Greek edition of Procopius’s History of the Wars. (Procopius is the ancient sort of the DC insider blogger/pundit: he praised Justinian, sort of, in the History of the Wars, damned him as demonic in the Secret History, and eulogized him in the Buildings — all predicated on the degree to which Procopius felt that the emperor was well/sick, dead/alive, popular/unpopular and the degree to which he was in/out with the court.

In the same manner, Procopius was the secretary to Belisarius, his apologist, his primary critic, and perhaps (this is disputed) the same Procopius who, as magistrate, put him on trial for his life. In other words, he was a sort of New York Times or Newsweek columnist.

It is touchy to use the library, since its hours are now vastly abbreviated due to furloughs (You, reader, will come to know that word soon enough in the increasingly bankrupt America: it means that we must not tamper with union contracted employees, so we simply ask them not to come to work a day or so a month. The resulting pay cuts are not pay cuts.)

The newly expanded and modernized library — thanks to the generosity of a local Indian gaming casino—is in the material sense, quite impressive. But even without the massive addition, the early 1980s library was a sui generis, the unique creation of the Europhilic scholar Henry Madden, whose postwar acquisition trips to Europe had ensured the nearly 1 million volume library was among the very best in California (where else in these parts can one find something like the 83-volume Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, the most complete encyclopedia of the classical world in existence -- in German?).

For ease of use, professional and polite staff, and accessibility (the books are available, the stacks open, and recall rare), it was perhaps the best library of its size in the nation. Yes, Fresno had one of the top 1-million volume libraries in the nation— something the Chamber of Commerce never seems to brag about, although the stacks are open and available for browsing by any tourist or visitor. For most purposes of access and lack of recall, I prefer it to the Stanford Library.

But this new manifestation is still confusing. Let me explain. The volumes are now housed in postmodern collapsible shelving that electronically come apart as needed. Impressive — but this day it seemed to me that the savings in space surely were not needed. Quite simply, save space for what? More books? Not really.

The library instead has transmogrified into a multiplex student “center,” replete with Starbucks, lounge areas, and hundreds of loud, talking, and eating students. This day I saw just three reading books and about 100 chatting, web surfing, and emailing.

No one was accessing the hundreds of thousands of volumes in the electronic shelving. And whereas in the Madden era, signs abounded warning not to eat, phone, or talk (the idea was not to disturb those studying and reading and writing, or to litter or invite insects, etc. into the inner sanctum), today almost everyone was phoning, talking and eating. I would imagine the old budget was about ½ of the present one — and the number of people using a library for its books about double the present number.

Then a thought came. This is most definitely not quite a library for most. Yes, its basement is a sort of forgotten archive of a vanquished civilization of readers; but its top floors are self-glorious monuments to current sociology.

You see, it is a meeting place, a locale for cultural socialization, where particular groups are given tours, have group projects, see multimedia presentations, and by the fact itself that they are in a “library,” they are suddenly reinvented into students and scholars.

(I grant that this is part of a nationwide trend in which student centers now draw or lose students, depending on the range of plasma TVs, rock-climbing walls,  bars, etc., and that libraries are cultural resources centers, and so my observations are simply again anecdotal in nature.)

By dusk, I closed the medieval gates to my driveway and prepared to get ready to drive to work for the week at Palo Alto, as postmodern a world as mine out here is premodern. (In response to all this, I am trying to restore this 1870 two-story house to its original appearance, in and out, as much as I can ascertain in photographs from my great-great-grandmother's era, though I confess it is a questionable expenditure of scarce funds: I'm 56 and spend most of my time at Stanford these days. I am not sure any of my three children wish to live here. I grant that it is now to be in the city-limits and accept that it is no longer a homsestead farm and that its vineyards, barn, shed, and barnyard are virtual. I realize that the environs in general, in terms of dog licensing, policing, crime, and community, are pre-civilizational. I am foolishly spending what I can on the idea of it. I am trying to ensure the memory of the 19th century survives the chaos of the 21st in one tiny place for a decade more or so. I am, in reactionary fashion, protesting against the world of 2010. I am aiding the memory of all those now dead I remember so well in the 1950s and 1960s in these rooms.)

All of which raises the question: how would we return to sanity in California, a state as naturally beautiful and endowed and developed by our ancestors as it has been sucked dry by our parasitic generation? The medicine would be harder than the malady, and I just cannot see it happening, as much as I love the state, admire many of its citizens, and see glimmers of hope in the most unlikely places every day.

After all, in no particular order, we would have to close the borders; adopt English immersion in our schools; give up on the salad bowl and return to the melting pot; assimilate, intermarry, and integrate legal immigrants; curb entitlements and use the money to fix infrastructure like roads, bridges, airports, trains, etc.; build 4-5 new damns to store water in wet years; update the canal system; return to old policies barring public employee unions; redo pension contracts; cut about 50,000 from the public employee roles; lower income taxes from 10% to 5% to attract businesses back; cut sales taxes to 7%; curb regulations to allow firms to stay; override court orders now curbing cost-saving options in our prisons by systematic legislation; start creating material wealth from our forests; tap more oil, timber, natural gas, and minerals that we have in abundance; deliver water to the farmland we have; build 3-4 nuclear power plants on the coast; adopt a traditional curriculum in our schools; insist on merit pay for teachers; abolish tenure; encourage not oppose more charter schools, vouchers, and home schooling; give tax breaks to private trade and business schools; reinstitute admission requirements and selectivity at the state university system; take unregistered cars off the road; make UC professors teach a class or two more each year; abolish all racial quotas and preferences in reality rather than in name; build a new all weather east-west state freeway  over the Sierra; and on and on.

In other words, we would have to seance someone born around 1900 and just ask them to float back for a day, walk around, and give us some advice.

PS. I don't vote Democratic any more much, if at all, but haven't gotten around to changing my registration to Independent. But this June I will at least once more vote in the Democratic primary, largely for Mickey Kaus, whose online campaign seems to be reminding us just how absurd Barbara Boxer has become. He has good sense about unions and amnesty and state spending (my late mother, an appellate judge, used to speak highly of state Supreme Court Justice Kaus, a Democratic moderate, who, I think, was his father). In general, I have listened to all three senatorial Republican candidates and they are all good. Note — Barbara Boxer is a particularly unfortunate sort of politician, combining arrogance (remember her much publicized slapdown of a general and African-American businessman) with a loud sort of ignorance. (A diversity note: Three of the most powerful women in the world that have a lot to do with running the U.S. are multimillionaire, doctrinaire liberals, who at one time lived within about 50 miles of each other in San Francisco — Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer.)