A surprise return visit to Ashland, Oregon brings with it a potential for an earlier change in seasons than I could ever hope to expect in Southern California, but not adequate time to reflect on what seems now like that former life I began living there twenty-five years ago.
The flight up to Oregon was promising enough and faster than usual. My mother and I had tried a different shuttle service. The driver arrived late, and he seemed a little drunk, or at least his van seemed to edge into right lanes too often for safety. He claimed there was something wrong with the alignment of the steering. We weren't sure--especially when he narrated what seemed like an interminable tale of rescue from drowning in the Bering Sea or the Gulf of Alaska.
The trip by shuttle definitely seemed longer and more perilous than the quickly boarded Horizon jet to Medford, Oregon. Taking off at night, I could see that the coastal fog had already filled up the San Fernando Valley and obscured the city lights of Greater Los Angeles. Mount Wilson loomed large with its necklace of multicolored lights. Over the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, lights were fewer and farther between the farther we flew north, but the moonlight shone brightly enough by the time we were cruising over Mount Shasta for me to make out patches of snow on the high glaciers. Finally the town of Ashland spread out like an oval tiara lost in a deep dark forest.
Even at 10:30PM on October 5th the air on the ground was warm and dry as we walked away from the airport. Settling down for the night, I was reminded immediately of what silence really sounds like and what good sleeping weather is. By midnight it was cool enough to require turning up the furnace to its lowest setting. Even so, my mother would comment the next morning that she could have used another blanket.
Despite various missions to accomplish over the two days in Oregon, I tried finding moments to settle into my former life: coffee and a scone in the morning a the Beanery, discussions with a local applied linguist and shorter ones with other faculty members quickly moving through the coffee shop on their way to morning classes. Then there was a chance to see a production of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson with a superb cast of actors at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Set in the Pittsburg, Pennsylvania of the 1930's, the play depicts Afro-Americans and their extended family members from Mississippi battling over the past and their individual visions of the future. How much more convincing it seems to capture people other than ourselves, from another time in history, who have, nonetheless, those universal human conflicts over how to come to grips with a troubled past, an uncertain future.
Ashland once seemed to me the place to settle down for good. Mostly it was a question of affordability and teaching jobs. In 1983, after three rainy years in Portland, exposed to unhealthful of industrial pollution, Susan and I rented out "cabin in the sky" above the town in the Siskiyou Forest with a view of Mount Ashland. Though a little wary of rural isolation in the winter, we were amazed at how quickly we adapted to the slower pace of life. I continued writing my Searchings for Modesto, and we contemplated buying a place and having a child, which led to revelations about my own adoption. (Although thorough pre-planners, we thought we needed knowledge of my genetic background after fifteen years of marriage before becoming parents.) Early the next year Susan's father died and so did the Swedish aunt who was also my grandmother by birth.
But twenty years later most of those memories seem overshadowed by the triumph of unforeseen events. While my attention was focused on teaching, buying and remodeling a house, and raising a child, the Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall came down, and America headed into a high-tech boom. Now the 1990's seem, in the light of hind sight, a time to be nostalgic about: a time that brought William Jefferson Clinton to office, and a "peace dividend." Of course, teaching English in an isolated community in Southern Oregon always runs counter to Popular Cultural trends, and from my perspective now, the whole investment of energy in that area seems quixotic at best, overstressing and cancer-inducing at worst. For me, though, the path was growing narrower, despite a wonderful year teaching as a Fulbright in Besancon, France early in the decade. Illness, depression, disability and the need to seek help for my son, Bengt, meant life in Ashland had become too limited. I can still return to the house we bought together, but my marriage has become a legal arrangement, convenient, friendly, but unresolved. Every time I go back there I have to face unsettling memories and on-going, though less bitterly contested issues.
While I lived in Ashland and the Northwest, I always enjoyed October with its changing leaves and early rain storms off the ocean. Indian summer would come and go before Halloween, and the winter fog would begin to settle more permanently in the Rogue Valley. For the two days I was there I did indulge in the anticipated arrival of Fall weather: the golden leaves of the Ash trees in the garden next door, the heavy morning dew indicating an early frost and the need to wrap outdoor pipes and find those windshield scrapers buried in car trunks and glove compartments. But, again, it was only the suggestion of what might follow that kind of weather in a few weeks that I would experience. Everything was in fact unresolved. I would be up in the air again by noon on October 8th, and the cloud layer, though increasing that day, would hardly cause the passengers on the plane south to blink.
Meanwhile, the three-day trip up and back had offered an unexpected boon: I was not in California for the recall of Governor Gray Davis and the world-wide media attention it generated. No fan of the Governor's handling of the energy crisis with the likes of Enron and "deregulation," I was not especially inspired by the media adulation of an Austrian body builder turned movie star who seemed to promise everything and nothing at the same time. But Californians are heavily-sleeping dreamers who are short on critical thinking and big on the illusion of success created by public relations corporations. "The Media is the Message" here even more than Marshal McLuhan ever imagined--more than it is elsewhere--running way ahead of the curve and competitive edge. The fact entertainment and "news analysis" are now owned and operated by the same multi-billion dollar moguls makes media exposure a matter of dollars of positive (or negative) air time. God forbid that a major newspaper like the Los Angeles Times should throw any cold water on the unbridled enthusiasm of a "People's Revolt."
Anyway, it was for me a Populist Movement I could do without. Once accomplished, though, I can wish Arnold well enough. As Jimminy Cricket would say, "When you wish upon a star,/ Makes no difference who you are. . . ." Maybe the fact that Schwarzenegger grew up in Europe will add more than a single dimension to Republican candidates who seem otherwise to be stamped in my mind in anti-Kyoto treaty, anti-Europe, anti-United Nations, Axis-of-Evil, Bush moulds. Maybe, in fact, the Terminator can be approached on the need for rapid trains to offer some alternative to gasoline-guzzling automobile transportation. (This suggestion may seem counterintuitive since he owns umpteen Hummers, but you never know what a desire for publicity might do.) Maybe, as Reagan's star rose to eclipse poor Gerald Ford and Bush Senior's query regarding "voodoo economics," Arnold can parlay his movie star status into a challenge to the Republican and Enron establishments and run against George W. Bush in the primaries next year!
So what if the Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, specifically prohibited men like Alexander Hamilton (not "native born," hailing from Bermuda rather than Graz, Austria) in an article of the Constitution from running for President? Certainly that is a minor impediment that yet another Populist Revolt could repeal in these giddy times--along, I suppose, with the article forbidding the issuing of "titles of nobility," so outmoded these days when celebrity and wealth confers "royal status," when campaigns are launched on the Jay Leno Show and sustained by Oprah Winfrey, and when Republicans can be wowed by a wife from the Kennedy clan.
Taking the shuttle back to Camarillo from the airport--autumn in Ashland the farthest thing from my mind--I said aloud, "Willkommen nach Kalifornia!"
8 October 2003