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From Sea to Shining Sea, It’s California : Lifestyle: Why uproot yourself from ‘back home’ when you can have tofu and a tan without the smog and gridlock?

<i> Frank Jossi, a frequent visitor to California, is the program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. </i>

As the winter winds whip up and blizzards begin their annual assault on the Midwest, it is with jubilation and sadness that we in flyover America view California’s impending economic collapse.

Forbes and the rest of the business press have been telling us for months that the California economic and real-estate machine, which in the past plowed forward even when the rest of the country reeled in recession, is due to take a few hits. The defense-related industries are gearing up for a shock, and apparently all those Californians who bought $800,000 homes can’t unload them even for the price they paid, much less at a profit. My heart bleeds.

Which brings us to why a few of us are rubbing our hands together over California’s fallen star. What has come back to haunt California is its special gift to the country, Ronald Reagan and his house-of-mirrors economic plan that nearly crushed this region in the early 1980s. (For students of history, an acknowledgement: Reagan is a Midwesterner by birth.) It always seemed rather unfair that the Midwest took such a hard blow during the great supply-side experiment, especially since the vagaries of weather already make this a difficult place to live.

California had always been a beacon for restless Midwesterners, a place where you could check your dweeb personality at the state border and reinvent yourself by putting on a pair of Ray-Bans and turning off your mind. It was a place where you could score a job and live forever as weirdly as you wanted with minimal hassle from the authorities and neighbors. Everybody had a story of a kid down the block, usually someone not particularly bright, who went out to California and came back years later with tales to tell about his good job, Jacuzzi, beautiful wife and cool life-style. Sometimes it was even true.

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And of course there was that damnable sun that never set and the sterling Pacific Ocean. Shoveling out of six feet of snow while millions of my fellow Americans were lying on beaches always seemed grotesquely unfair to me. Living near a sea held great romance to many landlocked Midwesterners, as did the chance of seeing a celebrity, maybe Madonna or Charlie Sheen, sauntering down a neighborhood sidewalk.

Los Angeles was paved with gold, a city where any idiot with a dream could make it and forget or alter his past because no one would care about it anyway. San Francisco offered a refuge for liberals, gays and lesbians in a setting that made almost every other American city, and certainly every Midwestern city, look awful.

Certainly these are all cliches, but they are the comfortable cliches Californians live with. I recall an excruciatingly terrible one-hour television special several years ago in which the inimitably bad actor Erik Estrada narrated an introduction to the wonders of the California lifestyle. It served as an open invitation to the rest of the world to join the fun.

Come they did, but not because of Estrada’s advertisement. Over the past two decades, California’s flourishing industries, think-tanks and universities stole some of the rest of the nation’s best minds. The Midwest and East kissed goodby some of its best engineers, scientists, actors and professors--as well as poverty-stricken dreamers, bums and second-rate screenwriters. The brains used to head East, but now they went West, too.

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Sometime in the late 1980s, California began to lose its magnetism. All reports told us that California had been stuck with the same problems as the rest of the nation. The free and easy lifestyle had brought with it a Faustian bargain of social problems, crime and overburdened government agencies and services. Freeways had become gridlocked. Poverty in Los Angeles had begun to look as bad as that in Chicago. The street gangs grew as vicious as New York’s. The housing prices now rival Manhattan’s. The horizon has an orange halo of pollution so bad that the air over Cleveland and Detroit looks clean by comparison. AIDS has frozen the state’s much-vaunted hypersexuality. All the reasons to head West have lost their allure.

Perhaps the most grievous blow to the California mystique came with the way communication and social change from the 1960s onward altered the entire country. I can buy tofu down the block, find any number of crystal stores, astrologers, tanning booths and plastic surgeons in my neighborhood. These days, anything that happens in California spreads east pretty quickly, sometimes as fast as a few months.

So, as Midwesterners sit stuck in snow this winter, they may dream of California. But the reality is that getting out of a snowdrift is a lot easier than navigating rush-hour traffic in Southern California. There is no promised land anymore in our country, no paradise or comfort zone to escape the ills that plague America in the late 20th Century.

I used to dream of moving to California. Now I’m seeing Californians who once lived in the Midwest coming back. I figure I might as well stay put.

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