Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Dreaming of California

[This post is written for graduate students in a writing class for monks I'm teaching in Bangkok. Their final assignment for the semester is to contribute a post about their home for the class blog, MCU Travel Blog, and my intention here is to give them an example.]

In a 1965 record, the Mamas and the Papas sang about dreaming of California on a cold winter's day somewhere else where the weather is not so nice.

All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray.
I've been for a walk on a winter's day.
I'd be safe and warm if I was in L.A.;
California dreamin' on such a winter's day.

Downtown Santa Cruz
These words of mine are written in a tropical climate where the leaves are never brown and if the sky is gray it's because of farmers burning off their rice fields before summer planting. While I was born elsewhere, I lived for most of 60 years in California, both south and north, and the second half of that time was spent in Santa Cruz on the Bay of Monterey, as close a place to Paradise as I've ever found. California, where I lived in Surf City, is surely my home forever.

Santa Cruz Farmers Market
Growing up in Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia, I was 12 when my father came home one day to tell my mother, brother, grandfather and I that we were moving to Los Angeles where he'd found a job selling plywood in the lumber industry. California!  Where movies are made, and oranges grow on trees! I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.  My goal at this point in life was to become an actor and now I'd have my chance!

My cabin in 2010
After a memorable cross-country trip in our new 1953 Ford sedan, we found a "ranch" house in the northeast suburb of La CaƱada with an orange tree in the front yard and four in the back, all full of ripe and delicious naval oranges. Later the back yard trees were uprooted for a swimming pool.  The good life was great!  I attended junior high school, found girlfriends aplenty, dressed like a juvenile delinquent, climbed the rope in gymnastics, played clarinet in the orchestra and was chosen assemblies commissioner to MC at school functions.  Quickly I became a Californian, and every day on the way to school I picked an orange to eat.

Santa Cruz Town Clock
The native population of California was displaced in the 16th and 17th centuries by Spanish conquerers, and then the land became part of Mexico when they broke away from Spain in 1821. Twenty-seven years later gold was discovered in the Sierra mountains and the whole world rushed in to find some.  California was quickly stolen from Mexico and became the 31st state. Queen Calafia was the queen of Amazons in a 16th century Spanish novel.  Today, the state has the 3rd largest U.S. population behind Texas and Alaska, provides most of the fruit and vegetables eaten by Americans, and if it was a country would have the 8th or 9th largest economy in the world.  Non-whites (Mexicans, Asians and blacks) are now 60% of the population.

Santa Cruz Pier and Boardwalk
There are really two Californias, north and south, with different climates and even political leanings. The country's 2nd and 5th largest cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, preside over each territory. Most of the water is in the north which means and empire dams and pipes to carry this valuable resource have been constructed to quench the thirst of the south.  The state's landscape is 1240 km in length between Mexico and Oregon, and 400 km in width between Nevada/Arizona and the Pacific Ocean. I lived for 20 years in the south, in and around Pasadena where I began my work life as a newspaper reporter. During my time in the rock and roll business I lived in Venice a stone's throw from the sand and surf.

Over the years on frequent trips to the north, where relatives lived in Tiburon and Berkeley, I fell in love with the cooler temperatures and greener hillsides.  San Francisco is a sophisticated city compared to the shabbiness of LA.  My first foray into big-time academia was at UC Berkeley but I dropped out twice, and I worked one summer as a vacation replacement reporter on the San Francisco Chronicle.  The north felt like more my style but I never managed to find a foothold in the city in those early years.

Seals gather beside pier
After getting myself fired as a music biz PR guy, I finally escaped to the north in 1976 and began a long tenure in the coastal city of Santa Cruz, between the redwood-covered hills and the rocky shoreline along the Pacific.  North of Monterey and south of San Francisco, it was a sleepy fishing town until the university and the hippies arrived in the mid 1960s. I lived in both cabins and houses in the mountains where hippies and rock bands (my friend Peter managed one of them) dwelt in communes, as well as down in the flats of the town where the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake disturbed the tranquility of the Victorian neighborhoods.  To make ends meet, I wrote and edited a local newspaper, handled art direction and circulation for a music magazine by commuting over the hill to Cupertino, and managed a database of alumni for the University of California's Santa Cruz campus. At UCSC my dormant curiosity about, well, everything, was aroused and I returned to study, lifting my head from books only after I'd received BA, MA, and finally a Ph.D. degree in the new century.

Ancient redwood trees
Santa Cruz is smallish, with a population now of about 60,000, three-quarters of whom are white.  It began in 1791 as one of the string of Spanish missions to spread religion by the book and the sword (a horribly large number of native Americans died from their ill treatment by the Europeans).   The city was incorporated in 1866 with an economy based on agriculture, lumber, gunpowder and lime (necessary for construction).  The first state park, established by middle class anti-logging activists in the early 1900s (my Ph.D. thesis), was at Big Basin.   Most of the Mexican immigrants, legal and not, currently live in Watsonville in the south county.  It earned the name "Surf City" (contested by Huntington Beach in the south) for the big waves at Steamer Lane next to the lighthouse.

Everyday Dharma
My wife and I raised two kids in the notoriously liberal and free-thinking place and time (Santa Cruz had a Marxist mayor for many years who also taught at the university).  I researched the redwoods and park history for my doctoral thesis, became a Catholic at Holy Cross, and meditated with the Everyday Dharma Sangha down the street. After I began traveling for community college Spanish classes (Mexico, Argentina) and to build houses with Habitat for Humanity in Guatemala, I also helped start an ecumenical spiritual group based on the teachings of Fr. Bede Griffiths who established an ashram for Christians and Hindus in Tamil Nadu, India.  I grew wings in northern California that hadn't yet sprouted during my years in the south.

Sunset along West Cliff
This has become more about my journey than about the landscape that supported and inspired it.  The central coast is incredibly beautiful and many times I drove along the ocean south to Big Sur (where I stayed at the Catholic monastery) or north up to San Francisco.  I sunned, burned and tanned in summers (when the ever-present fog had lifted) on the many gorgeous beaches where the sand is hot but the water too cold usually to swim.  In the hills around the city I hiked alone or with friends through the redwood and fir forests.  Most of the San Lorenzo Valley was clear-cut to rebuild San Francisco after the 1916 earthquake but by the 21st century much had grown back.  During my last and perhaps final visit (the high airfares) in 2010 I tried to hit most of the hot spots I remembered. The downtown area has evolved from the sleepy main street that I saw in 1966 to a cosmopolitan pedestrian mall with trendy shops and restaurants, perhaps too fashionable now for my tastes.

Where I used to teach
And yet...30 years is a long time to spend in a place and I sunk deep roots.  My memories of friends and familiar environments, in the town and up in the mountains, remain strong.  I left to become an expat in Thailand for reasons too numerous to list here, but it was never a rejection of the place that sustained me for so long.  I commune with friends on Facebook and follow news stories like the recent student strike over rising tuition fees that closed down the university for several days.  I left a good chunk of my heart back in California.

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