California: Find Yourself Here -- Stat!

06/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Several years ago the Governator starred in a tourism ad that was one wild ride of commercial propaganda. The theme was to poke fun at the California laid back lifestyle and make double entendres about work versus play in the land of fun and sun. It's beautifully shot, with all the beautiful people, and about as accurate a picture of the current state of affairs in California as the stability of your local Chevrolet dealer.

Sunbathing beauty Vanessa Marcil teases through her Jackie O sunglasses, "People think life in California is one big vacation. But it's really a lot of work." Surfer gal Candice Kumai, snowboarder Jonny Mosely and a skateboarder smirk that California has plenty of board meetings (wink, wink). San Diego native golfer Phil Mickelson records his score on the links with yet another wink, "We're really just a bunch of pencil pushers." Vanessa Williams in Disneyland with Mickey and Minnie in background, "We work with some real characters." After a string of beach scenes, bonfires, massage tables, and wine tastings, Rob Lowe, sitting on the beach with his laptop, begins the pitch: "So if California seems like your kind of work," then the First Lady Maria Shriver says, "We've got one question." Governor Schwarzenegger, arms spread with a wide smile, asks, "When can you start?"

Here is the ad for your viewing pleasure:

I lived in Southern California for 8 years and still consider the area a part-time home. I love the people, land and lifestyle of a state that represents over 10 percent of our country's population. The California that is advertised to the rest of the world is not what life is really like there. It's so expensive to live there that only a select few have time to surf. Many people I know moonlight on the side just to pay rent or mortgage. I met some of the hardest working people in sunny Southern Cal. The propagated image of the laid-back Californian golfing, swimming, or sunbathing over working perpetuates stereotypes of people who may seem to now deserve their own fate. But it's not for lack of a work ethic that put California in its present sorry state. It's lack of planning and lack of paying. For that, everyone shares some blame.

The whole time I lived in Cali (2000-2008) the economy was growing and the prices of homes were soaring in annual double digits in many prime areas. People were investing in flipping houses for quick cash. Credit was readily available, no matter if you had to pay the piper down the road. A land of Scarlett I'll worry about that tomorrow O'Haras emerged. In 2009, the bills are due. Sacramento's answer is to squeeze blood out of a stone from education, healthcare, and public landmarks. Arnold Schwarzenegger's public approval rating is now in the outgoing President George W. Bush's vicinity. He's not smiling now.

In February 2008 Maria Shriver made a poignant remark about presidential candidate Barack Obama. At a UCLA rally with Oprah Winfrey and Caroline Kennedy, she said, "If Barack Obama was a state, he'd be California. Diverse, open, smart, independent, bucks tradition. Innovative. Inspirational. Dreamer. Leader."

That seems like a very long time ago, not just a little over a year from where we now find ourselves. California is still a land of dreams and innovation where a lot of searchers venture. It's also deeply in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy. I tell all my students to live in California, even if just for an internship or short-term stay. It's like going abroad. I never viewed this suggestion as an urgent appeal. But now I too say, "When can you go?" Maybe seeing the Golden State beyond the celluloid ideal of a state tourism ad will wake up our collective consciousness to what a mess we're in.