Occasionally you can see a batch of Easterners standing on the coastline braced for the trends that blow in from the West.
California is three interminable hours behind us whenever we need it, but it's six to 12 months ahead of us when we're not sure we want it. The prevailing winds bring down new social trends upon our heads like cultural fallout.
This time Califronia has decreed yet another kind of divorce. Just a few years ago the state was one of the trailblazers of No-Fault Divorce, and now they've adopted what I would call No-Hard-Feelings Divorce.
Jerry Brown, who once said that he considered marriage too serious to get into it, has signed a new bill that eases the way out of it. Beginning in January, a couple with neither children nor much property, married less than two years, can split without a lawyer, or a court appearance, for a small fee of $40 or $50.
This is, I think, a sensible consumer law that will make life easier for people like the 171,211 who filed for divorce in that state last year. It has a fine California edge of pragmatism about it, and the spooky coolness that Paul Simon sings about in his famous exit line: "You like to sleep with the window open / I like to sleep with the window closed / So Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye."
But what intrigues me most about the news from California is the implicit recognition of a range of marriages. If there is a law to fit the seriousness of crime, there is now a divorce to fit the lack of seriousness of the marriage. In California they are telling the truth - that marriages come in all shapes and sizes, from the trial to the trivial to the true. Marriages grow by degrees, by years and accumulated commitments.
This particular idea has moved into our consciousness with the speed of the continential drift.
When I was a teen-ager, I remember how relationships divided into progressive states from dating to going steady to pinning to engagement. Now, I suppose, living together would be added to the list. But marriage was something else again. Marriage was, well, marriage, The big step.
The newest marriage was considered a more serious business than the oldest liaison, even if it belonged to Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Honeymooners were considered every bit as hitched as the golden-wedding couple.
We all recognize today that society and spouses have a smaller investment in a one-year, third-degree mating. We assume that a marriage that has been thickened with the cornstarch of children, time and hope is a different entity, a first-degree marriage.
But even in California we lack the language, if not the laws, to describe the range of our emotional relationships. Social change has sped ahead of our capacity to express it.
We are able to adopt fancy technological words and bastardized trendy phrases faster than we can revise dictionaries. The language of connections, of feeling and of families remains far more static than the reality.
It is increasingly difficult to speak the truth about our lives. There is no way to properly introduce the people we're committed to but not married to; there is no title to give the "friend" who shares our daughter's apartment; there is no kinship term for the children of our second husband's first wife's second marriage.
So, many people in our lives are deserted, left dangling like participles, in shadowy illegitimacy. It's rather as if our language remains the bulwark of social conservatism.
I suppose it's no coincidence that we have trouble articulating the changes that come hardest. We need new layers of words to express the different emotional ties and marital lands we range across, the way California's new law differentiates first-degree and third-degree divorces.
But I suspect they will be slow in coming. Don't look for them on the Red Eye Special from the coast. They're still wordless, even on the Western fringe.