Misconceptions about California

It’s a weird feeling to discover your views have been warped all along.

In all my 56 years, I’ve spent a total of 15 days in California, so saying I’m no expert about that state is putting it mildly. But I didn’t realize just how many silly misconceptions I had about it until driving nearly its entire length this time around. And the only source of these ideas has come from TV and movies. I’m sure I replaced a lot of those old misconceptions about it with some brand new ones, but I hope they’re slightly less idiotic.

First of all, the entire state is NOT full of 10 lane highways with bumper to bumper traffic. There are actually stop signs and stop lights and everything. And there are vast swaths of rural areas. It’s not all urban sprawl. Imagine.

And here’s a big shocker: Not everyone is beautiful and thin and young. Not everyone surfs, and those that do wear wet suits, not bikinis or swim trunks. And I’ll hazard a guess that more than half the beaches are NOT wide and sandy and easy to access. And I didn’t knowingly see a single movie star. Not one.

And guess what? Californians are human like the rest of us. They require grocery stores and pharmacies and mechanics and hardware stores and gas stations. The California in my mind was devoid of all of these things. It makes me laugh to think of it now.

I thought that in San Francisco I’d see trolleys everywhere. I don’t know what it was like pre-pandemic, but they’re not running right now, so mine was a trolley-less experience. And I seemed to be wearing the only colorful face mask in that city, which made me despair, but in other places I saw some colorful ones, so I guess I didn’t have to fear the face mask police after all.

I will say that one belief I had about the area is painfully true. It’s freakin’ expensive. Gas is expensive, food is expensive, the sales tax will make you blink in astonishment, and we saw thousands of houses that were anywhere from a million to 9 million dollars, so I don’t know how anyone but the ultra-rich can afford to live there. We saw one hovel of a house that was only 800 square feet, in a rather scary neighborhood, going for 2 million dollars because it was in a beach town and only a few blocks from the water.

I did feel a tension between the rich and the poor that was more extreme than I’ve felt elsewhere. It’s got to be hard to be a poor person who has to scrub the toilet in a waterfront mansion. It must stink to have to mow the lawn for some rich jerk who should be xeriscaping due to the drought. There were a lot of tent cities in the more populated areas, just as we have around Seattle. At least those people aren’t having to cope with the rain, but it’s still tragic and heartbreaking and wrong.

The number of rich people flitting about is also wrong. While dining at restaurants, I heard several ultra-privileged conversations that would make the average person gasp. One was about how eating the types of healthy, organic, expensive foods (that most poor people can only dream of) is actually “a gift from your higher self.” Another was about having to fire someone because she couldn’t grasp the proper way to fold her son’s sportswear, and how that was “simply beyond the pale.” I wanted to barf in her endive.

Rich people, in general, seem pretty clueless, but it’s even harder to take when they are so dependent upon poor people who can barely survive in that economy. I kept thinking, “Let them eat cake.” Lest we forget, that perfect farm-to-table salad is the result of a lot of backbreaking toil in the hot sun for someone else.

The Los Angeles area stressed me out completely. There were a lot of amazing things to see, but traffic there was a total nightmare. I’m glad my husband did all the driving, but I still felt the need to sit in the car with my eyes closed on the freeways so as not to become a nervous wreck.

The area is so crowded that I felt this constant buzzing tension and a low-grade claustrophobia. It’s one of those places that I’m glad I visited, but would never want to live in. It’s also very dry and very brown. Northern California is a lot more lush and green.

But California flora is pretty amazing, I have to admit. Redwoods, of course. I’ll be writing a great deal more about them. And kelp in the ocean. And Pride of Madeira plants in the north, and Jacaranda trees and succulents the size of your head and Bougainvillias in the south. And everywhere, the California Poppies that I adore.

So, yeah, I’m guessing that most of us who haven’t been to California have a warped view of the place without even realizing it. Give it a visit. It might surprise you. It frequently shocked the hell out of me, but mostly in the best of ways.

The Jacaranda Tree. I sure wish they thrived in colder climates!

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Rural Retirement

The thing that would drive me crazy would be the boredom.

I hear a lot of people talk about moving when they retire. They want to head to a third world country to get the biggest bang for their buck. Or they talk about moving way out in the boonies, where housing prices are lower and the cost of living, in general, isn’t as costly. These ideas make sense, but there are several factors to consider.

First and foremost, to my mind, is healthcare. The older you get, the more prone you are to catastrophic health issues. Do you have quick access to a hospital if you have a heart attack or stroke? More importantly, is it a hospital you feel you can trust to give you the best care? It’s all well and good to live in a shack on an island in the middle of the south Pacific, but it would be unfortunate to have to fly 3,000 miles to cope with an unexpected allergic reaction to coconuts.

Another thing to consider is the isolation factor. The older you get, the more isolated you become. Younger people get impatient with your slower pace and your antiquated opinions and your oft-repeated stories. That seems to be a part of the circle of life. But do you want to isolate yourself even further by putting miles between yourself and your family and friends? Sure, Skype exists, but it doesn’t feel as good as a hug.

Also, it’s important to remember that rural locations don’t have as much ready access to the services you might well need. Counseling. Grief support. Adult Protective Services. Home health aids. Tow trucks. Public transportation. Grocery stores. Maids. Airports. Libraries. Pizza delivery. While it’s possible to get by without these things, it’s a lot less pleasant.

The thing that would drive me the most crazy would be the boredom. And boredom, combined with isolation, can lead to depression. I never thought I’d say this, but you can only read so many books, especially if your eyesight is failing. You can only play so many games of solitaire, or watch so much TV.

I’d miss being able to go to restaurants and concerts and movies and festivals. I’d miss having options. I don’t want to bury myself in a casket before my time. I will want to continue doing things when the mood strikes, even if it doesn’t strike as often as it once did.

Yes, it’s a great idea to stretch your retirement dollar, but look before you leap. The sacrifice you make may be more extreme than you intended. You get what you pay for. Find a healthy balance.

Rural Retirement

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Exploring Washington State: Vashon Island

Just a 15 minute ferry ride from West Seattle across beautiful Puget Sound takes you to a different world.

Just a 15 minute ferry ride from West Seattle across beautiful Puget Sound takes you to a different world. Vashon Island is rural, lushly wooded, hilly and remote, and yet it’s nearby. It’s quite the dichotomy.

It’s also got a lot of delightful little cabins, which is a nice change from the bulk of King County, which is rapidly being covered in urban sprawl and unaffordable housing. The island itself is 37 square miles, stretching basically from Seattle to Tacoma, and the population, according to the 2010 census, is 10,624. On Vashon, the pace is slower, and you can really breathe.

The views are spectacular, too, as these pictures attest. You can even see Mount Rainier during your ferry crossing. It looks as though it floats above everything. It took my breath away.

On Vashon, there are a few enclaves with delightful little shops and restaurants. Make sure your car is gassed up on the mainland before you go exploring, though, because gas on the island is about a dollar more per gallon! But what I liked the most was getting out into the wilderness and the quiet. We even came upon a deer, who seemed quite surprised to see us.

So, if you need a getaway, but don’t want to get that far away, I’d recommend Vashon Island. I look forward to going back again and again.


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White Boy

Growing up in a small town in the rural south, I encountered my fair share of interesting characters. One guy that I’d occasionally see around was known as “White Boy”. He was a huge guy with a huge chip on his shoulder. He was intimidating. He used to fight a lot. I never saw him smile. We weren’t friends.

White Boy came by his attitude honestly. He was actually African American. He also happened to be an albino. This made him the subject of ridicule from all sides.

As an African American in the South, he was already treated like crap by a huge segment of the population. But his albinism meant that he didn’t fit in with African Americans, either. I don’t know who started calling him White Boy, but no one seemed to know him by any other name. I wonder how he felt about that.

I can’t even begin to imagine what his life was like. I just knew that he was angry. As far as I was concerned, this made him one to be avoided. So that’s what I did.

A true test of one’s character is how one treats those who happen to cross one’s path. Looking back, I’m ashamed that I never learned White Boy’s name. I’m ashamed I never gave him a chance. I’m ashamed that I stared at him and avoided him, basically treating him as I would a strange and dangerous animal in a zoo. I never called him names or bothered him in any way. I just kept him trapped on the other side of the glass. That was cruel enough.

I have absolutely no excuse for my conduct, other than the fact that I was in my early teens, and no one was modeling better behavior. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to choose another path. That particular defining moment in my life is one of my everlasting regrets.

Wherever Wh… wherever that fellow human being is today, I hope he found, and continues to find, reasons to smile.


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Rooting for the Home Team

When I was 10 years old I moved from my waspy, upper middle class New England house and wound up living in a tent in the rural South. It was quite the culture shock. But the biggest shock of all was finding myself in a public school where only 1 percent of the students looked anything like me. This was something I had never experienced before, and I got beaten up quite often as a result.

I also had a great deal of trouble adjusting to the backward Florida school system. It was several years before I started learning anything that I hadn’t previously been taught in Connecticut, and when they tested me and determined that I was reading at college level at the age of 10, they weren’t nearly as impressed by that as they were that I was voluntarily reading anything at all.

At one point my mother asked me if I even had textbooks. I told her yes, but that I did my homework in class, as it only took a minute. No reason to lug those books home.

Once, my teacher was talking about the Civil War and she asked whose side everyone would be on. “This is easy,” I thought. “Union, of course.” But I was stunned to discover that all the children of color around me chose the Southern side.

I was normally quiet and kept to myself to avoid the inevitable beating. But this… I couldn’t handle it. “Are you guys crazy??? You’re supporting the side of slavery!” None of them changed their minds, however. I was speechless.

As an adult looking back, it’s a bit more understandable. In that school system, they were taught virtually nothing about history or human rights. Most of them were so poor that they’d probably never stepped foot outside the backwater town in which we lived. They were simply rooting for the home team, as if this were a football game. I have no doubt that every one of them came to their senses when they entered the real world.

It wouldn’t be the last time I felt like the only voice of reason in an insane situation. I feel that way now when I see people supporting Donald Trump or denying global warming. Forgive them. They know not what they do.

[Image credit: theblaze.com]

Outing the KKK

Back in the early 80’s, when I was 17, I was driving to a local park with an African American friend of mine to go swimming. To get to this park, you had to go miles down this rural road to its very end, then come to a stop at a T junction and make your turn. Normally this wasn’t a big deal, but on this day it was about to get nasty.

Let me set the scene: Small town Florida, where racism was not only commonplace, but rather militant; where it was still acceptable to mention that you were a member of the KKK in the high school yearbook, amongst your other affiliations, such as the pep club. And we were on a stretch of road where my friend had once been shot in the face with a bb gun by a total stranger. The fact that we were even in the same car together raised eyebrows.

And as we approached that T junction, we saw a hooded member of the KKK handing out flyers to everyone who stopped at the stop sign.

“Oh, shit, I’m dead,” my friend said. I knew what she meant. This is a small town, and she’d be recognized. They may not take kindly to her being in my car. They’d know where she lived.

“Hold on tight!” I said, and went off the road, straight at the guy. (I wouldn’t have hit him, but he didn’t know that.) He threw his pointy-headed self headlong into the kudzu. He was too busy picking palm fronds out of his teeth to recognize anyone as we sped off.

I have to say, that was one of the proudest moments of my life.

So, when I read an article that said a group that calls itself Anonymous is planning to reveal the name of about 1,000 Ku Klux Klan members, I was thrilled.  Yes, there’s freedom of speech in this country, even for hateful KKK speech, but you shouldn’t have a right to hide. If it’s your conviction, this hatred of yours, then own it. If you know you have something to be ashamed of, maybe you should rethink your philosophy.

Anonymous is apparently a group of hackers that are currently targeting the KKK, but in the past they’ve also targeted Scientology, the Westboro Baptist Church, and child pornography rings, so I consider them the good guys. I’d love it if they outed the KKK.

But here’s where it gets uncomfortable. If I don’t think the KKK should be allowed anonymity, then in all fairness, this group Anonymous shouldn’t be, well… anonymous either. Here’s the thing about facelessness: it brings out the worst in people. While this group is currently doing things that I happen to adore, it wouldn’t be hard at all for them to turn to the dark side. That’s what scares me.

So yes, Anonymous, please do shine a light on those KKK cockroaches. But lift up your figurative hoods as well. That way we can all shake your hands. And keep you honest.


The Cigarette Girl and the Waving Man

I spent the first 10 years of my life in Connecticut, so when we moved to a small Southern town in the 1970’s, it was quite a culture shock. The segregation was more subtle than it had been in the 50’s, of course. We all went to school together. But we certainly didn’t live in the same neighborhoods, attend the same churches or socialize in any significant way. Every rural town has its characters, but in Apopka, Florida where I grew up, ours were even more tragic or heroic or, I suppose, both, due in part to this unofficial segregation.

Every day, rain or shine, you were bound to come across the cigarette girl. She looked like she was in her early 20’s. She was always in a ragged house dress and barefoot, summer or winter. I never saw her move, but she must have, because she popped up on various street corners throughout town, and she’d just stand there in a catatonic state, looking like an impoverished, unkempt and extremely neglected statue. The saddest thing about her was that she always had cigarette butts stuck haphazardly in amongst her corn rows. It was disgusting. It was tragic. And the fact that her family and the powers that be in the city did absolutely nothing for her, and I felt completely unequipped to do anything myself, made me feel like the world was not a safe place, and that you couldn’t count on adults at all. Whenever I saw her I was mesmerized by her, but was too afraid to approach her. I tried to find out her story, and I did hear a rumor that she had been gang raped when she was 5 years old, and hadn’t been “right in the head” since. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I do know that the entire town seemed to be content to let her roam the streets like a stray dog, and there’s something very, very wrong with a community that’s willing to do that.

On the way home from school or the library or the drug store, we would have to drive through the poorer neighborhoods because we were extremely poor ourselves, and therefore lived on the outskirts of town. Every single day unless it was raining, we would pass this broken down shack next to the railroad tracks, and sitting out front on one of those ratty old webbed lawn chairs would be a very old, weathered man. Whenever a car would drive by, he’d wave and smile, so I called him the waving man. I knew nothing more about him. He never had anything with him. No newspaper, no radio, no book, not even a glass of sweet tea. But he never looked bored. He just sat there and waved his wrinkled old hand as if that was his calling, as if he had always been there and always would be.


(Image credit: http://www.flickriver.com/photos/tags/lreyns/interesting/ )

At the time it never occurred to me to stop and talk to him. I think I’d have been too scared because of the neighborhood or too intimidated to cross our great cultural divide. But I was always curious about him, and would have loved to know his story. He looked happy, and yet I’m amazed that shack he lived in didn’t fall down every time a train went by and rattled its already shaky foundation. I never saw him with friends or relatives, but he looked much too old to be taking care of himself. Still, he was there, day after day, smiling, waving, enduring and apparently timeless, living his life. And I would always wave back. I hope he was content and cared for by his neighbors during his last days, but I’ll never know, now.

The last time I went back to Apopka it had changed so much that I could barely find my way around. The drug store was a mere shadow of its former self. The library, once housed in a cozy corner of a strip mall, had moved on to bigger, more modern accommodations. Everything seemed bigger and more modern, in fact. My town had joined the 21st century at last. But I will always remember it as a small town that looked the other way, and maybe that was good, and maybe it wasn’t. That was just the way Apopka was.