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These days, people are quick to see tarnish on the Golden State. Overly glossy images of Lotusland have given way to overly dire visions of gloom. The truth, of course, lies in between. : California Dreaming

April 18, 1993|This story was written by Times staff writers Roy Rivenburg, Robin Abcarian, S.J. Diamond and Lynn Smith

A h, the Golden State. Sunshine and bliss. Convertibles and hard bodies.


Times staff writers try to pop or at least deflate some of the myths and misperceptions we live with.

Perception No. 1: Californians Are Airheads

Ever since Frank Lloyd Wright gazed west and said it seemed as if the country had been tilted on its side and all the loose screws had tumbled here, many have assumed that Californians can't think.

That their brains, melted and corroded by sunshine and salt air, have been rendered incapable of intellectual activity.

Um, like, no way .

So what if our academics don't hang out in cafes wearing wire-rimmed glasses and bow ties? They've been busy inventing things of great historical import: the seat belt, the wet suit and 40 varieties of strawberries. As for the rest of us, well, at least we buy a lot of books.

Residents in the L.A.-Long Beach area are second only to New Yorkers in the amount of money ($265.6 million) they spend on books annually, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce's most recent figures.

High school grads who enter the University of California system are smarter than most freshmen around the country.

In 1992, their mean SAT scores (503 verbal, 596 math) were 22% higher than the national average.

Moreover, the UC system includes 236 members of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and has produced 29 Nobel laureates--many in physics, chemistry and medicine. UC doctors were the first to successfully perform fetal surgery.

Beyond the campus, some believe California thinkers might come to dominate American intellectual life.

USC professor and author Kevin Starr suggests that our films (such as "Boyz 'n the Hood") might offer the best method, superior to written analysis, of thinking through difficult social problems.

In addition, serious and well-funded Southern California thinkers at the San Diego-based Salk Institute and Brentwood's Getty Center will be paving the way in AIDS, leukemia and artistic cultural research.

Says Starr: "The whole question of the Getty and what it's going to do will make Los Angeles the new Alexandria, an 'ecumenopolis' on the Pacific Coast."

Perception No. 2: California Is the Cult Capital of the Country

True and false. In terms of actual numbers, California does have the most cults, but the distinction of most cults per capita belongs to Arizona, according to Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion.

California earned the nickname "Cultifornia" for a couple of reasons: First, the proliferation of "unconventional religions" is largely an urban phenomenon, and California is the only state with three major urban areas, Melton says. Second, most cults are imported from Asia, Melton says, and this is their logical starting-off point. The best-known is the Unification Church, whose members are frequently called Moonies after founder Sun Myung Moon.

But there are home-grown varieties, as well, such as John-Roger's Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness.

Do more Californians join cults? Nobody knows. But the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network says it fields more calls from California than any other state (or nation) except Illinois, the network's home.

Perception No. 3: Californians Are Healthier and Better-Looking Than Everyone Else

Standing on the Venice boardwalk on any given summer day, watching the scantily clad hard bodies skating by, the scantily clad hard bodies recumbent on the sand and the scantily clad hard bodies pumping iron, it's easy to conclude that people here are much healthier and better-looking than people almost anywhere else.

Are they? Better looking, maybe. Healthier, no way.

When insurance researchers ranked states in order of general healthiness two years ago, California finished--ready for this?--22nd, based on such factors as access to primary care, public spending on health and infectious-disease rates. (Hawaii, where 96% of the population has health insurance, ranked No. 1, according to an insurance company survey.

Part of the problem is that, while we may pay homage to the idea of working out, eating tofu and juicing (the latest health-food fad), we aren't always so great at following through.

When it comes to health, says Woodland Hills chiropractor Dan Fry, Angelenos "want the quick fix, but they don't want to take (long-term) responsibility. . . . They come in for advice, but it's like you are talking to a brick wall."

To make matters worse, spending more time exercising outdoors doesn't always help.

According to the American Cancer Society, California leads the nation in incidence of skin cancer. About 3,800 cases of melanoma will be diagnosed here this year; about 850 residents will die of it.

The disease usually turns up in older patients--those who grew up thinking of tans as healthy--but doctors have also seen a number of teen-agers "who have been surfing every day since they were 9 or 10," says Dr. Ronald Reisner, UCLA professor of medicine/dermatology.

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