West Coast Wander, Day 11: San Juan Capistrano and Long Beach, California

A thought provoking day. The world keeps spinning.

We had a two-week vacation, and decided that it would be fun to drive down the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California and then drop off our rental car and take a train back home. I’m calling this journey the West Coast Wander, and plan to blog about it every other day so as not to totally alienate those who have no interest in travel, and yet allow those who do to travel vicariously with us. Here’s the first in the series, if you want to start at the beginning.  I hope you enjoy it, dear reader.

Throughout our journey along the California coast, we kept passing, taking pictures of, and peeking into various historic Spanish missions. The complicated history of the mission system intrigues me a great deal. Unfortunately, time was limited, so I allowed myself to pick one mission to explore in depth. The one I chose was San Juan Capistrano.

I’m convinced I made the right choice because on this day we spent many hours in that beautiful mission, exploring the gardens, the bells, the statuary, the exhibits, the courtyards, the chapel, and of course the ruins of the great stone church. What a beautiful, peaceful and spiritual place this is.

It was founded by Junipero Serra in 1776, the year of American independence, and I wonder if that had any effect on this mission. Granted, California did not become an American state until 1850, so it may have been peripheral to their daily lives, but still, it was right on the same continent. I wonder what they thought. I wonder, again, what they thought during the Mexican-American War, especially after California was claimed by America in the aftermath thereof.

Sitting in one of the quiet little courtyards, I could imagine this mission being a peaceful little enclave as history boiled all around it. But that is a very Euro-centric view indeed. Actually, this place came here by force and by theft and by violence.

The Acjachemen, a band of Native Americans who had occupied the area for 10,000 years, saw it less as an enclave and more as a usurper. They did not welcome Father Serra, but he was backed by the Spanish military. These people were going to be converted whether they liked it or not. Even so, the majority of the population wasn’t baptized until 1790.

Before the mission, the Acjachemen had collectively owned hunting and fishing areas, and also had private property within their many villages. The mission put an end to that by taking over most of the land for cattle grazing and horticulture. And of course, much of the population was wiped out by European diseases, and their shrinking numbers meant they became increasingly easy to dominate.

By 1812, 1,361 Acjachemen lived in the mission compound. That must have been awfully crowded. But as they died off from disease, that population had dropped to 800 by 1834.

The Acjachemen resisted assimilation, so the missionaries separated them from their children so that their culture and traditions would not be passed on. The children would be torn from their families at the age of seven, and not see them again until they were married young adults. If the people disobeyed the priests, they were whipped or jailed. For some reason, this did not make for genuine religious converts. And yet Serra was made a saint.

By 1826, the Mexican Governor emancipated the Native Americans in some of the missions, but not in this one. But as word spread, it was all but impossible to get these tribes to cooperate in any way. By 1833, they were requesting their land back. They got it, sort of. Most were never given legal title. So they reverted back to a dependence on wild fruits and game, and by 1841 most of the area was ranch land owned by Mexicans.

When California became a state in 1850, what few land rights the Native Americans had under the Mexicans were erased, and so, for the most part, were the Native Americans. When you see things through that lens, it’s confusing that this mission is so beautiful and peaceful today.

Now what you see is flowers and butterflies everywhere. You see religious iconography that would make you believe that this was a very piously Catholic place. You see a statue of Father Serra embracing a Native American child as if the place was all about love.

Also, the Father Serra Chapel is known as a place of comfort for all those who have been touched in any way by cancer. It is wonderful, thinking that people come here to feel that emotional burden lifted, if only for a brief moment. In fact, when we entered the Chapel, there was a woman weeping so hard that her whole body was shaking, as her husband quietly stroked her back. I wanted to hug her, but of course I didn’t intrude. So yes, despite its history, this mission does serve a purpose, even today.

It also had a kind of jarring patriotic message on our visit. The courtyard is full of American flags. Wouldn’t Father Serra find that ironic? I view this as another attempt to make this place all about the good. It wants to be seen as devout and faithful and nationalistic and on the side of right. (All while America’s squeaky-clean image gets more tarnished by the year.)

Oh, and then there’s the story of the swallows. Who could forget that? It seems that the swallows come back every year, like clockwork, on March 19th, St. Joseph’s Day. They do so because Father St. John O’Sullivan invited them to come to the mission, as there was room there for all, even birds that most of the townspeople viewed as pests.

A romantic notion, but it seems that these birds tend to come sometime around March 19th, give or take a few days, and they stopped coming entirely from 2009 to 2017. According to Wikipedia, that was because the mission was no longer the tallest building in town. Urban sprawl, don’tcha know.

That’s a problem, because much of San Juan Capistrano’s economy is dependent upon tourism, especially swallow-loving tourism. You can get the story of the swallow in just about every shop. Swallow ornaments and artwork abound. There are swallow t-shirts and post cards and you name it, the swallows have swallowed it. There’s even an annual Swallows Day parade in non-pandemic years. These birds are a big deal.

So what the mission did was consult a swallow specialist. They played swallow calls throughout the compound to lure them back. In 2015 they added a man-made replica of swallow colonies to give them someplace easy in which to nest. So now the swallows are back, due to a bit of trickery, and all’s right with the town.

So, yeah, I have very mixed emotions about this mission. Right now it’s full of flowers when it used to be full of slaves and squalor. But if I lived here, I’d probably hang out in these courtyards all the time. In the here and now, it’s a delightful place to visit. I didn’t want to leave. But I’m sure glad I wasn’t here in the 1800’s. In fact, any sane person back then would run as far away from it as they could.

And yet, here I was, basking in the sunlight, enjoying all the flowers, wishing a butterfly would stay still long enough for me to take a picture, and feeling grateful that a stranger who needed desperately to weep was able to do so. The world sure does keep spinning.

After that, we visited a few of the nearby shops and then had a really, really excellent meal at a place across the street called Ciao Pasta. I had a steak salad and dear husband had a shrimp and salmon salad. The steak all but melted in my mouth. If you ever get a chance to eat at this restaurant, do.

We took a detour on the way back to our hotel, back to Long Beach so we could check off a few other curiosities on our wish list. The first is claimed to be America’s skinniest house, and the second is the largest mural in the world, which is wrapped around the Long Beach Arena. It’s called Planet Ocean. You know how much I love murals, so I had to see it. We saw a lot of other really cool public art along the way.

There were a lot of other things in the Los Angeles area that we were unable to see for a variety of reasons. I only list them here because you may want to see them yourself. We didn’t visit the Bottle Village in Simi Valley because it was too far out of the way. We didn’t eat at the Apple Pan, a historic diner. We didn’t go to Universal Studios to see all the Harry Potter stuff because it was expensive and time consuming. We didn’t see any live show tapings or tour the Queen Mary because of the pandemic. We didn’t go to the farmer’s market because we were there at the wrong time. We didn’t ride the Balboa Ferry or visit Crystal Cove State Park to body surf, either. All of these are excellent arguments for a repeat visit, but there’s so much of the world that I want to see that I hesitate to do “repeatsies”. Time will tell.

We headed back to our hotel, The Checkers Hilton, which is conveniently close to the train station we would be going to in the morning. It’s a grand place, but it had a surreal tinge to it, because much of the area around it is boarded off due to the pandemic. In fact, a security guard had to escort us from the parking garage, through a boarded up building, to get us to the hotel lobby.

We seemed to have the entire multi-story hotel to ourselves. We had a snack at the rooftop snackbar, which affords beautiful views of the nearby library with its pyramid. No one else was there, which was all the more strange since the main restaurant was closed due to the pandemic. We didn’t see anyone in the hallways or elevators. It was like a ghost hotel.

A ghost hotel, so naturally, dear husband left me all alone there. Ha. Well, I could have gone with him to drop off our rental car at the airport, but I had had enough of LA traffic, so I stayed in the hotel and took a nap. He had uber-ed back to me in no time, and nothing supernatural had happened, so, now being car-less, we decided to walk to an area restaurant for dinner, as there appeared to be many to choose from within blocks of the hotel.

Easier said than done, it seems, because much was pandemically closed. If it was a ghost hotel, it was living in a ghost neighborhood. No cars on the streets. Spooky, desperate-looking panhandlers seeming to float down the sidewalk, making me feel equally nervous and guilty.

Finally we happened upon the Veggie Grill. It’s a simple place with a limited menu, but I must say I had the best tuna melt I have ever had in my life in that restaurant. Maybe the fact that I was relieved that something was still open added to the flavor.

We decided to make an early night of it because we would have to uber over to the train station in the morning, to catch the train back home. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought about the fact that there would be two sleeps until I saw my beloved dogs again. And yet I was grateful for this epic journey of ours.

I thought about a book I saw in a gift shop in San Juan Capistrano that day. Its title was, “May you live a life you love.”

Oh, but I am. I truly am.

Hop on over to Day 12!

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There Goes the Neighborhood

I’ve been house hunting, and I can tell, almost immediately, if I’d be a good fit for a neighborhood. If there are wide expanses of manicured lawns, I definitely will not fit in. And I would chafe under rules that dictated what color I paint my mailbox. I’m not a “keep up appearances” kind of person, if I can possibly avoid it. I prefer a yard that’s pretty much au naturel, and my tastes can be unorthodox.

I love dandelions, because the bees love them. I don’t know why people object to moss or dollar weed. I mean, it’s green and it’s flat, right? What’s the big deal? Lawns were a French affectation that unfortunately caught on, and have been a nightmare for the environment ever since. I will not, absolutely will NOT fertilize my lawn. That crap gets into the watershed, and it’s one of the reasons that the river in Jacksonville gets choked with green slime every summer.

I like to plant flowers that will attract butterflies and bees and hummingbirds. I love to grow heirloom tomatoes, although I’m not great at it. I dream of having a bat house in my back yard. I think squirrels have as much right to food as any other creature. Possums keep the tick population under control. And if I feel like paining my house hot pink, I’ll do so (although it’s unlikely).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to leave junk cars up on cinder blocks in the yard, or moldy couches that fill with mice and stink after a good rain. I’m not going to plant flowers in an abandoned toilet or cook meth (I hate to cook). But if you can’t handle a neighbor’s yard that suffers from benign neglect, or a neighbor who has an interesting concept of art, then we’re going to have issues.

Having said that, I am quiet, I don’t cause trouble, and the police have never been called to my door. I want to steal an idea from a friend and call my next home “Tranquility Base”. I’ll even hold onto your mail while you’re on vacation if you ask, call 911 if I see someone peeping in your windows, and help you look for your dog if he runs away. So I’d like to think I’m a good neighbor to have. I am house hunting in the Seattle area, so if you are looking to sell, please, please contact me first. More details here.

Urchfont Manor
Urchfont Manor. It’s safe to say I do not live here.

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Love Me, Do.

Recently I spent time in the presence of someone whom I can’t even look at without getting butterflies in my stomach. He makes me blush. I feel like I’m in junior high school. And he knows I have a crush on him, because I told him.

He gives me mixed signals. Sometimes he flirts, sometimes he doesn’t. We make vague future plans with no specifics and as yet no follow-through. He puts his hand on the small of my back and I nearly melt.

He has a full life, and we’re not kids anymore, so even if he were interested, I suspect this would not be a rush job. And I get the impression that he’s very humble, and genuinely has no idea the affect he has on people. He may be a bit slow on the uptake. But hitting him with a brick would be counterproductive.


COME ON!!!! What’s taking you so long? I’m a wonderfully interesting, passionate, intelligent and fun person.

This never used to be so difficult. I never had to work this hard. After a certain point one begins to feel pathetic. This is a game I’m not sure I have the energy to play at my age.

But it is nice to feel butterflies again. It’s been a while.


Elements of the Future

I was listening to Radio Lab on National Public Radio again today. What a fascinating show! This time they were talking about new theories regarding a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly. I highly recommend that you listen to the 16 minute story, which is called “Goo and You”, and can be found here.

Basically, when a caterpillar forms the chrysalis, its body, internal organs and all, dissolves into this goo. And somehow, no one knows quite how, out of that goo a butterfly is formed. It’s really amazing when you think about it.

What struck me most about this discussion is the concept that when a caterpillar transforms, it takes parts of itself from the past. They describe a study in which a caterpillar is trained to avoid a certain smell by being given an electric shock every time he smells it. Then he transforms into a butterfly, and somehow, from that goo, the butterfly still manages to keep the aversion to that smell! How does memory emerge from goo?

But even more interesting is that if you dissect a caterpillar, you will find thin, almost transparent elements of the butterfly it will become rolled up inside its body. Inside the chrysalis, these rolled up elements unfurl and line the casing as the caterpillar dissolves. Which means the caterpillar carries elements of its future self within it.

That got me thinking about the elements of my past that I have carried forward that impact my life today. And it also gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, I do have the wings within me that will someday allow me to fly. I just have to make my way out of all this goo.


[Image credit: hassoomi.deviantart.com]

When the Punishment for a Good Deed is a Lifetime of Regrets

Everyone probably has a story about trying to help someone and instead unintentionally making things worse. This is one of those stories. But if you’ve been reading my blog, you probably know I don’t ever go half way. I strongly suspect I may have ruined someone’s life, and the worst part about it is that I’ll never know for sure. I’ll always have to live with that.

In college I had a friend whom I will call S. She was a sweet girl. Kind to everyone. Gentle. A talented artist. She was one of those people who kind of seems like they may have grown up in a secret garden, surrounded by butterflies. She even had the faraway look. She was oblivious to the world’s ills. She had no concept of self-protection, and didn’t have a skeptical bone in her body. I honestly don’t know how she had made it through 19 years of her life without something terrible happening to her, but apparently that was the case. If I believed in angels, I’d swear that one had to have been watching over her. We spent a lot of time together in school. We were even roommates for a while, and took a two week trip to Spain together. Lovely girl.

After graduation, we kept in touch for a time, but life has a way of pulling people in different directions, and that was the case with us. A couple years passed with no contact, and then I got a phone call. Probably the strangest call I’ve ever received in my life. It was S, but it wasn’t the S that I knew. This was…how do I explain it? This was S on laughing gas. This was S in the Emerald City, complete with ruby slippers. She was so euphoric I considered recommending hospitalization. It was just…weird. Don’t get me wrong. Happiness is a good thing. But this wasn’t that. It was more like head trauma happy. She said she was in town and she had to, absolutely had to see me. I have to admit I was curious, so I told her to come on over.

When S showed up, I was horrified. She was skinny, had dark circles under her eyes and looked kind of feverish. And ecstatic. I was thinking drugs, but didn’t see any tracks on her arms. Of course, that’s not the only way to take drugs.

Then she told me about Lifespring. This was an organization I’d never heard of, but she said it had changed her life. She had come to convince me to join. Fortunately, I’m not a joiner. (My mother couldn’t even get me into the Girl Scouts. After one torturous school year in the Brownies, I put my foot down.) She told me that Lifespring conducted seminars that changed your life in some way that she just couldn’t articulate. Yes, of course they cost money. She had spent every penny she had on them, but she wasn’t worried. She knew she’d be taken care of. In fact this was the first time she’d been outside of the company of a fellow Lifespringer in, oh, months. She had convinced several of her family members to join as well, and this is a family with money. She was so happy that she barely felt the need for sleep, which was good, because they were always there, and rarely gave her time for it. But that was okay, ‘cause she was happy. Happy, happy, happy. Soooo happy. She told me that she had given my name and address to the organization.

As you can imagine, I was floating in a veritable sea of red flags at this point. After she left, I went straight to the library. (This was before internet.) I started researching Lifespring, but wasn’t finding much, other than that some considered it a cult, and that a few people had left Lifespring and then committed suicide. I also discovered an organization called the Cult Awareness Network, and they had a great reputation back then*. I called them, and they sent me a packet about an inch thick, full of documents about Lifespring.

The more I read, the more horrified I became. This cult uses all the standard tactics such as sleep deprivation, influence and persuasion, and mind control methods to suck you in and then bleed you dry financially. Their main method of recruitment was to have members approach family and friends, or, barring that, befriending strangers under false pretenses and slowly introducing them to the concept. And she had given these people my address! Rest assured I was highly suspicious of new “friends” for about a year after that.

I like to think of myself as a loyal friend. And I hope that if I were in a cult, someone on the outside would care enough about me to intervene if possible. I brooded about this for about a week. If this were someone with a modicum of self-protection or was capable of even a soupçon of critical thinking, I might have let it go. Let her live her own life, make her own mistakes. But this was S. Her secret garden surely didn’t prepare her for Lifespring.

So what to do? I couldn’t call her mother. Her mother was in Lifespring, too. So I decided to send the inch thick packet of information to her very intimidating father, along with a note explaining that S had joined this organization. I would just let him take it from there.

So far, so good, right? And maybe it was a happy ending. It could have been. I hope so. But here’s the twist. I was not exactly a woman of the world back then, either. So it didn’t really consider the ramifications of what I did. You see, her father is Pakistani. The reason I tend to think the results of contacting him were negative are not because I’m Islamophobic. Quite the contrary. It’s just that S seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth immediately thereafter. So there are several possible ends to this story aside from the happy and loving one I hope for:

  • He disowned her, cut her off financially, and she’s out there somewhere, probably still in a cult (although Lifespring, apparently, no longer exists).
  • He dragged her back home and
    • Married her off against her will. (She had said he was pressuring her, but she was resisting.)
    • Locked her away somewhere.
    • Worst case scenario, killed her off for shaming the family and depleting their fortune.

S has not contacted anyone we knew since her calls to me, attempting to get me to join Lifespring, petered out about a month after our last visit, and that was in the mid 1980’s. She hasn’t given a current address to our Alumni office. I never heard back from her father, either. And she has a relatively rare name. I have Googled and Facebooked her about every six months for as long as there has been Google and Facebook. Nothing. Not a trace.

S, if you’re out there, I hope you’re genuinely happy. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’ll probably never know for sure. But hey, I did the “right” thing. Right? Didn’t I?

*Please note that the Cult Awareness Network is not the organization it once was. In 1996 it had been bombarded by so many bogus lawsuits by the Scientologists that it had to close its doors and the Scientologists bought out its name so that they could spread disinformation about their own cult. Any “help” that this once reputable organization will give you now will surely be warped, twisted, and biased to their way of thinking, so I’d avoid them entirely, but if you do feel the need to contact them, approach with caution.