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August 20, 2003

August 20, 2004: A New & Improved San Francisco Call

When I was a kid growing up in New York, my grandparents gave me a book called “A Child’s Geography of the World.” It quickly became one of my favorites, and I spent hours reading and re-reading its somewhat breathless descriptions of far-off countries and customs.

OK, I was a weird kid. But this fat little volume introduced me to an exotic place called California,

a land where they have the b-est, the bigg-est, the fin-est, the high-est, the lovely-est of everything — so they say — the best oranges, the biggest prunes, the finest grapes, the tallest trees, the highest mountains, the lovelyest weather — i.t.w.W. [in the whole World]. No, it’s not Paradise. That’s the ’est, ’est West.

“California,” the account burbled, “was named after an island in an old fairy-tale and in many ways the real California is a fairy-tale land.”

I swallowed this description whole, not knowing that I had fallen for an old, old myth. Eight year olds will believe almost anything. But so, apparently, will many adults. Even today, in an age of nearly universal mass communication, Californians who travel beyond the borders of their state discover that they are regarded as some kind of strange creature. And the ’est factor still holds, because they are often seen as representatives of the very best — or baddest, in every sense of the word — that America can offer.

Balderdash! Those folks have been watching too many movies.

Nevertheless, California does deserve special attention. With a gross state product of $1.4 trillion, its economy is the largest of all 50 states; it’s also the fifth largest in the world. With a census count of 35.5 million, its population is the largest of all 50 states; it’s also by far the most diverse. And with an area of 156,000 square miles, even though a few other states cover more territory, it is still larger than many of the world’s independent nations.

But big, by itself, is boring. California has another characteristic that calls for close observation, like the spotting of a shark offshore. Things happen here first. Just as weather systems gather in the Pacific and make their way across the North American continent, social and political pressure systems often arise on the West Coast and gradually travel east.

They are often ignored or underestimated. Unlike the National Weather Service, which maintains offices throughout the country, followers of human storm fronts tend to cluster on the East Coast. From that vantage point, the clouds of myth often obscure reality.

The San Francisco Call hopes to pierce that cloud cover. Even though the state is not the fairy-tale land of my geography book, some of its residents are in fact exotic. Or unusual. Or at least different from people elsewhere. Others are very similar. But they too put their own spin on the world by virtue of the environment in which they live, far from the eastern epicenter. As the SFCall publishes articles of national relevance with a decidedly Western point of view, it hopes to bring a little clarity to the murky images of California that now clutter the nation’s radar screens.

Here, for your kind attention, is a weekly series of genuine “Letters from California.” If you find them interesting, I hope you will pass them on to friends. If you would like to be notified when new pieces appear, please email bculp@sfcall.com.

Betsey Culp