After sharing my ill-informed impressions of California with you last month, I should probably just let it be. After all, only fools think they understand the South after a few months, and I presume the same is true for California. But expatriation here in the Spandex State seems to have dried me up on the subject of the South. Despite the concerned friends who’ve been writing and sending clippings, I just don’t feel in touch. Since there are still a couple of months left in our year out here, it looks as if it’s California or nothing—and, no, I’m not putting it to a vote.

Tell you what: I’ll just tell a few stories and go easy on the meaning of it all, OK?

Let’s start with Stanford, where we’re living this year. Now, I don’t want to pick on the place. It has enough troubles already. This year has seen, for instance, revelations of how overhead money from federal research grants went for things like sheets for the president’s custom-made bed. And you’ve probably been reading about this “political correctness” business lately, too. (Our nation’s pack journalists should be penalized for piling on: where have they been all this time?) Anyway, I’ll just say that everything you’ve heard on that subject is true, but I’m surviving. I drop by the Hoover Institution from time to time to get my head straight.

No, Stanford’s a great university, arguably the best one west of Fort Smith. Let’s get that on the record. It has a first-rate faculty and smart students, and if you think humanistic learning here is not a pretty sight, just wait until what they’re doing here trickles down to Generic State U.

One evening I was leaving the library with Susan Howatch’s book Glamorous Powers, when the student at the inspection desk raised an eyebrow at the title, and asked if it was any good. Realizing that Glamorous Powers does sound a little Judith Krantz-y, I mumbled that the book is about the Church of England.

“Oh,” the student said. “Is there anything in it about monks? I’m working on a paper on the cenobitic tradition.”

Impressed that an undergraduate knew the meaning of “cenobitic,” I told him there were some Anglican Benedictines in the book, but it was mostly about ecclesiastical politics—”sort of like Trollope, but around World War Two.”

“Trollope,” the kid said. “Is that a writer?”

As I said, Stanford students are bright, and they know a lot. But it’s next to impossible to guess what they know, especially now that Jesse Jackson’s friends have cleansed the curriculum of works by dead white European males.

Another story. The dean of the Stanford chapel is an old friend from North Carolina, an Episcopal priest who used to teach at the Duke Divinity School. As you might guess, he wasn’t terribly sound to start with, but California hasn’t been good for him. On the first Sunday in Advent, for instance, music for the chapel services was provided by a (first-rate) jazz guitarist, who played “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

At other services we’ve found ourselves praying alternately to God the Father and God the Mother. Now I don’t know how you feel about it, but that strikes me as rather Hindu. I mean, I can live with a genderless deity, but a hermaphroditic one gives me the creeps. Anyway, somebody—probably not me—needs to point out that these, ah, manifestations are locked into traditional sex-roles. The father gets to do all the whiz-bang creating, for instance, and the mother seems to be into nurturing. Maybe they mix it up on alternate Sundays and I just missed it. Neither parent makes any judgments, of course.

Speaking of which, Stanford announced a new “domestic partners” policy last fall that opened married student housing to unmarried couples—including unmarried couples of the same sex. When there was an outcry from some married students, my buddy the dean of the chapel chaired a “town meeting” to discuss the new policy. The principal opposition came from foreign students who don’t want their children exposed to American ways—at least not these American ways. Asians (the p.c. word for Orientals) seemed especially inclined to this sort of judgmental insensitivity, but what brought the meeting to an abrupt and noisy end was the observation by a Muslim student that in his country, of course, it would be his duty to kill homosexuals.

I wonder if anyone has really thought through this business of “multiculturalism”?

Anyway, on the ground here, outside the hothouse of the university, multiculturalism is a working daily reality. UHF television offers programs in Spanish, Japanese, Farsi, Italian, Evangelical—name your group, and the liability lawyers and chiropractors are advertising in their language. San Francisco has always had its ethnic neighborhoods and restaurants, of course, but now even a suburb like Mountain View offers not just Italian and Mexican restaurants, but Chinese of all regions, Indian (north and south), Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese . . . Walking the main street, you feel as if you’re in some exotic entrepôt, a vestpocket version of Singapore, say, or Beirut (in the old days).

It’s not unpleasant, and certainly the new immigrants seem to do most of the actual work around here. It looks to me as if it weren’t for Asians and Hispanics, the economic base of this place would be a matter of bicycle and roller-skate shops.

By the way, I wrote “Hispanic” instead of “Mexicans” not just to be p.c. A friend whose wife teaches first grade in San Jose reports that more than half of her students are Latin American—not just Mexican, but Honduran, Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, differences I suspect most of us in the East never even thought about. The same is true for “Asians,” a culturally meaningless hodgepodge of a concept if there ever was one.

Much the same variety can be found within the voluntary subcultures. Whatever your hobby, enthusiasm, political or sexual kink, you can find others who share it and gather to do it or talk about it—Tocqueville gone berserk. Some folks go to church on Sunday morning? That’s cool. Up the road a way, at the same hour, a hundred motorcyclists gather at Alice’s Restaurant for brunch. Off in the other direction, a group of software engineers and aging hippies get together to sing the old Primitive Baptist shapenote music. There are weekend subcultures of witches, nudists, skateboarders, and owners of Amiga computers—each with its own computer bulletin board.

Those of us whose development was arrested in the 50’s can listen to KOFY, 1050 AM, a radio station that plays only songs from that era. (One listener called in to say that his 20-year-younger wife loves the music he grew up with and “it turns her on in the most delicious way.”) We can drive around in fender-skirted ’57 Chevies with bumper stickers that say “The Heartbeat of America—Yesterday’s Chevrolet,” and we can go to Saturday-morning gatherings of other enthusiasts. On Saturday night, we can swing by the Peninsula Creamery for a chocolate malt; only the prices have changed since 1958 (but, boy, have they ever). Or we can dance the night away at ShBoom, a club in San Jose that plays only old rock and roll. Or we can stay home and watch Channel 20’s “Dance Party,” sort of an American Bandstand for the dental floss set, where people our age put on their old letter sweaters and poodle skirts and show the youngsters how it ought to be done. And this is Northern California.

This is partly an urban thing, of course. Georg Simmel wrote about it. It also requires general levels of affluence and leisure that once belonged exclusively to an aristocracy. Tom Wolfe has written about that.

But there’s a California overlay on all of this, an “I’m OK, You’re OK” ethic of hedonism and tolerance, coupled with an almost complete absence of noblesse oblige. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about whether this is wholesome libertarianism or a breakdown in society’s immune system (if you’ll excuse the unfortunate metaphor), but it is something like what Robert Bellah and his colleague wrote about in Habits of the Heart. That book troubled me because it didn’t describe any America I knew, but now I see where it’s coming from—literally. These California professors did a survey in the Bay Area and thought they were talking about America. Well, they weren’t. Not yet, anyway.

Guess I got into the meaning of it all, after all, didn’t I? Sorry about that. It’s time to go home.