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Stuff of Legends Is More Than Stuffed Shirts

July 31, 2002|JOHN BALZAR

I believe in myths, or I want to--the myths of our nation and, in particular, the dauntless sagas of the West. It seems to me that a culture without legends, without ballads to sing to itself, without a dash of romance packed away in its attic, is impoverished in the worst of ways.

No doubt that's why I was drawn to California. I cut my journalistic teeth here. This is the place where you either appreciate the fantastic or you wear rubber boots because California is knee-deep in it. So it has always seemed to me.

Just plunge into the latest installment in Kevin Starr's vivid history of California, "Embattled Dreams." It covers the decade from 1940 to 1950, when modern California was forged out of the sheet metal and sweat of wartime.

California's state librarian and a scholar at large, Starr has the touch of a novelist, and he renders history as a story, not as a theory. His California is populated by zoot-suiters, cinema celebrities, women on the factory line, black Americans biting into the ripening fruits of progress, Okies making good and the transiting legions of fighting men who promise themselves a fresh start in the sunshine, if only they live long enough. Plus various Red-baiters, reactionaries, a ghostly murderer and a towering political leader named Gov. Earl Warren.

"Embattled Dreams" is on my mind because the past is our best gauge to measure the present. Where are we in relation to where we aim to go? Just how are the legends faring now?

Comparing then to today, it seems fair to generalize and say that the pathways to personal riches, to contentment, even to enlightenment, remain wide open, if no less capricious. You can still strike gold here in the strangest of places, whether you want to be a Hollywood star, a surf bum or a cheese maker. In other words, the myth, at least as sized to the individual, is alive and kicking.

But not so our collective legends, the dreams and responsibilities we hold jointly: the "good life" we share beyond our front step. What puzzles me about today's California, the thing I find most insufferable, is that progress usually means the opposite of progressive. To borrow from another Western writer, Irving Stone, where are the men and women to match our mountains?

Every time I merge onto a freeway to find myself at a standstill, every time I think of our seashore foaming with effluvia, I realize how far we must go to reach the summit of our challenges. Yet those who claim leadership risk hardly an upward glance. The mayor of our largest city, the boy-with-his-father's-name, is not only uninspired but proud of it. Our governor is an unctuous adding machine stuck at 50%-plus-1--the election margin he needs to keep office. The candidate challenging him in the November election is a fingerling caught in an outgoing tide, a man who mistook his inherited wealth and corporate contacts for natural ability. Grass-roots activists, meanwhile, borrow from the Balkans and seek to break Los Angeles into rival enclaves.

Look at just one challenge, transportation. Southern Californians waste an average of 3 1/2 workweeks each year in traffic, more than many of them receive in vacation. In Sacramento, they'll tell you they have a transportation plan for us. Yes, and with it, the experts say, we must expect our congestion, already the worst in the nation, to get more frightful. Meanwhile, the state is balancing its budget on cigarette futures and we feel lucky if the lights stay on all summer.

Perhaps you say that leaders merely reflect the era in which they live. By that thinking, we have only ourselves to blame for this malaise. Which is true, at least in part. The contempt we have for our politicians (see example above) is matched by their determination to manipulate us and pander to us, a slow death spiral.

Income disparity continues to thin out and weaken the center of our society, making consensus ever more elusive. How can you rally people behind high-quality schools, for instance, when the upper strata of citizens already have them?

Yet I sense a yearning among Californians. I'm not the only one who wants to believe in destiny. I don't know a single person who is content to allow a future Kevin Starr to describe this as the era when we gave up on our dreams.

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