Where Dreams Die

I was given a great gift — but see below — to travel throughout California the last week, by land and by air over the state. It was hard to determine whether the natural beauty of the landscape or the ingenuity of our ancestors was the more impressive. The Sierra is still snow-locked and towers in white above a lush valley floor below. The lakes of the 1912 Big Creek Hydroelectric Project — Shaver, Huntington, and the still snowbound Edison and Florence above — belong in Switzerland. The squares of grapes and trees below look like a vast lush checkerboard from above.

I prefer the beauty of the Napa and Sonoma valleys to Tuscany; the former lacks only the majestic Roman and Renaissance history of the Italian countryside. Human genius in just a half-century has almost matched 2500 years of Italian viticulture. The California coast — the hills, beaches, and landscape — could be in the Peloponnese and easily stands the comparison. When early summer finally comes to the state in late spring, as it did last week, the result is almost divine: warmth and light without high humidity, daily rains, or high winds.

They say the Central Valley is the ugliest part of the state; I disagree. Last week from my great-great-grandmother’s upstairs balcony I could see snow capped mountains tower just thirty miles away; in-between were millions of green trees and vines and the water towers of small towns in every direction. Nothing in Spain or southern France is prettier. A man would have to be mad to leave such beauty, and the brilliant work of his predecessors who as artists built the dams and canals, laid out the agrarian patchwork, founded these communities that serve as bookends to the works of architectural and municipal genius in San Francisco, or Los Angeles and San Diego. Yes, a man would have to be mad — or quite rational — to leave paradise lost.

You see, here is the situation in California. Tens of thousands of prisoners are scheduled by a U.S. Supreme Court order to be released. But why this inability to house our criminals when we pay among the highest sales, income, and gas taxes in the nation? Too many criminals? Too few new prisons? Too high costs per prisoner? Too many non-violent crimes that warrant incarceration? God help us when they are released. We know what crime is like now; what will it be like if thousands are let go? I doubt they will end up in the yards of the justices who let them out.

I think I have a clue to what's ahead. Here is an aside, a sort of confession of my last six months in the center of our cry-the-beloved state:

December 2011: rear-ended by a texting driver; I called 9/11 and the police; she called “relatives” who arrived in two carloads. You get the picture. Luckily the police got there before her “family” did, and cited her. Still waiting to fix the dented truck.

March 2011: riding a bike in rural California, flipped over a “loose dog,” resulting in assorted injuries. Residents — well over 10 in various dwellings —claimed ignorance about the dogs outside their homes: no licenses, no vaccinations, no leashes, no fence. Final score: them: slammed door and shrugs; me: ruined bike, injuries, and a long walk home.

May 2011: two males drive in “looking to buy scrap metal.” They are politely told to leave. That night barn is burglarized and $1200 in property stolen.

Later May 2011: a female drives in van into front driveway with four males, “just looking to rent” neighbor’s house. They leave. Only later I learn they earlier came in the back way and had forced their way in, prying the back driveway gate, springing and bending armature.

Later May 2011: shop is burglarized — both bolt and padlock knocked off. Shelves stripped clean. It is the little things like this that aggravate Californians, especially when lectured not to sweat it by the academics on the coast and the politicians in Sacramento.

NB: I have been hit three times in the last 10 years: 1) driver ran stop sign, slammed into my truck, limped off, was run down and detained by me until police arrived; 2) speeding driver hit a mattress in the road (things such as that are rarely tied down by motorists in California), swerved, was hit, did a 180, braked, but still hit me at 45 mph head-on (survived due to the air bags of the Honda Accord); 3) rear-ended as explained above. But this time your wiser author, when the car rear-ended me at 50 mph, was driving a four-wheel-drive Toyota Tundra with huge tow bar in back; the texter was driving a Civic. Nuff said.

Such is life 180 miles — and a cosmos away — from the Stanford campus.

Our schools rate just below Mississippi in math and science. Tell me why, given our high taxes and highest paid teachers in the nation? Can the governor or legislature explain? Is the culprit the notoriously therapeutic California curriculum? The inability to fire incompetent teachers? The vast number of non-English speaking students? Derelict parents? How odd that not a single state official can offer any explanation other than: “We need more money.” What is the possible cure for the near worst math and science students in the nation? Yes, I see it now: the California Senate just passed a bill mandating the teaching of homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered history, just the sort of strategy to raise those English composition and vocabulary scores among the linguistic and arithmetic illiterate.

Try driving a California “freeway” lately, say the 101 between Gilroy and San Luis Obispo or the 99 between Modesto and Stockton, or an east-west lateral like the 152 between Casa de Fruita and Gilroy, or the 12 between Napa and Stockton. In other words, just try driving across the state. These stretches are all nightmarish death traps (the concrete divider on the two-lane 12 is a sick joke, a sort of kill-contraption), no improvements from 40 years ago when there were 15 million fewer people and far better drivers. But how did this happen when we pay the highest gasoline taxes in the nation; where did the revenue go? Is there some cruel joke I’m missing — a stash of billions in gas tax money buried somewhere and never used? And how can we even begin discussing “high-speed rail” (stage one planned from Fresno to the megalopolis of Corcoran no less!) when millions do not yet have “high-speed roads”? Madness, sheer madness.

How did we suddenly save the 250,000 irrigated acres on the west side, recently idled to ensure that rivers run into the delta and the sea to save the three-inch smelt? Brilliant legislative compromise? Judges who finally came to their senses? Massive dam and reservoir construction?

No, the land is being irrigated again only because we have a near record wet year. The Sierra snowpack in the age of global warming is about 180-190% of normal, one that will last well into late July. When things go bad in California, we pray for supernatural help.

Our governor just stepped down. We discovered two salient facts about his departure. As he exited, he vastly reduced the prison sentence of the son of former Assembly speaker and self-described “friend” Fabian Nunez, who had been tried and convicted of voluntary manslaughter for his role in aiding and abetting the murder of a San Diego area student. That surely was a pressing issue for the departing governor, key to the safety and well-being of 37 million Californians.

Two, he announced that in fact when he ran for office in 2003, despite adamant denials of his supposed womanizing, he had recently impregnated his household assistant, and was now eight years later to be the admitted father of an illegitimate son (she got a nice home but mysteriously still defaulted on her car loan). The usual sordid stories followed. In 2003 the tabloids that trafficked in such unbelievable rumors were dismissed as liars as Mrs. Schwarzenegger defended her husband’s virtue; eight years later the two are out of power, and suddenly we are to be told the sleazy tabloids sort of had it right: the child is now ten, and Mrs. Schwarzenegger is no longer defending her now governor emeritus, soon-to-be-ex-, soon to be far poorer husband. Shocked, shocked, she is, as they say in Casablanca.

Just as Strauss-Kahn is a metaphor for the bankrupt socialist technocracy in Europe, so Schwarzenegger is a metaphor for our California times, though the latter is a kinder, gentler sort, committed no crime, and charmed rather than brutalized his willing, rather than unwilling, servant. He entered under less than candid circumstances in response to an inept Governor Gray Davis who had left the state a mess, and for his part left as an inept duplicitous governor who left the state in a larger mess.

The ball is now in Gov. Brown’s court to either refute or trump all that, and either save or bury the nearly dead state. I wish him well, and pray that he has the courage and wisdom to speak the truth and act on it, a truth that would earn him dislike from some of those who supported and funded him and now are crowded up at the for-a-while- longer-above-water bow of the sinking Titanic. He has the opportunity to be either a savior and renaissance figure, or both the youngest and the oldest failed governor of a failed state.

Such are the thin strands of reform, on which our hopes hinge, here in the far, far west.