A little paradise on Mt. Figueroa

On an early Wednesday morning in May, I got into the car with Susa and three women from her book group and we headed south on the 101 towards the Santa Ynez Valley. I had agreed to go along even though I really didn’t know where we were going or what we were doing. Susa had said we will visit some people who built an adobe home.

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The drive south from San Luis Obispo was beautiful in and of itself. Everything is green around here and the section of highway in North Santa Barbara County is full of gentle, rolling hills and oak trees. Parts of it are largely undeveloped and a pure pleasure to observe. There are also tons of vineyards, which gives the area a resemblance to the valleys of Burgundy, France. I have been wondering about these vineyards, however. They have been sprouting up all over California like wild mushrooms. Twenty years ago Napa Valley was the center of the wine industry. Today they are literally everywhere.

I mentioned to my fellow passengers that I really like them, but then we spoke of the problems involved. Somehow investors have discovered that they can turn a pretty penny with wine. The vast hills of California had previously layed fallow or been used for grazing. Just as other monoculture crop, the vineyards require tons of water and pesticides.

After about an hour’s drive, we turned past through the charming town of Los Olivos and headed East up a beautiful, little valley towards Mt. Figueroa. We passed Neverland, Michael Jackson’s old ranch. All you can see from the road is a big, ugly gate.

The road kept getting smaller and bumpier as we headed the 10 miles up the mountain. We eventually crossed into Los Padres National Park and found the little dirt road leading to the community. From the road it didn’t look like much. Turning the corner, though, we discovered an amazing view all the way down into the valley and over to the coastal mountains. A cluster of small homes, trees, gardens and assorted animals occupied the only flat piece of property on the mountainside.

We parked and walked over to discover a garden and some strange, brown houses. There are about five homes, and they all look like variations of some earth dwellings from The Hobbit. Betsy, along with her husband the founder of the community, greeting us with a big smile and a hug.

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She and her husband bought this large piece of land about 15 years ago with basically nothing on it. For the first year they slept in a tent with their small children, then built the first yurt, then the first cob house. After years of hard work and lots of volunteer help they have a number of beautiful homes and even a Dojo where they practice Aikido. Their water comes from a few springs up the mountain, their electricity comes solely from solar panels. They have propane gas, wood stoves and compost toilets. They are literally “off the grid” and self-sustaining. They do grow their own food, but still rely on local markets and even CostCo for supplies.

Betsy gave us a tour of the place. She showed us a little tiny house that was built for a grand total of $48 dollars. A highly successful British architect who had been building skyscrapers in Singapore decided she wanted to do something meaningful and so she came here and in three weeks built this wonderful dwelling. It has a special kind of fireplace which is floor level, has a large opening into the room and is extremely energy efficient. They are outlawed in the US because of the fire hazard.If you have a stone floor it seems safe enough.

The pictures can give you an impression of this little piece of paradise. Betsy and her husband now have grown children and after years of hosting workshops, desire to focus more on their own creative art work.

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Democracy in California

My German friends won’t believe me when I tell them that democracy is alive and well in California. In fact, most people would not believe me. We have a popular-vote losing president in the White House, we have a campaign-financing system that undermines democracy and we have voter participation at 55% nationwide. Moreover, we have millions of citizens struggling to pay for their healthcare and to make ends meet. Without economic security we can hardly call our system democratic.

But, that is not the whole picture. I have been living on the California Central Coast, in the charming, mid-size college town San Luis Obispo (SLO), for the past eight months and I have seen the other side of the coin. The political engagement of a large sector of the population is palpable. People are getting involved in the local community in a myriad of ways far beyond the simple check in a ballot box every two years. Some of this may be a manifestation of the ‘Blue Wave’, a revolt of Democrats and Progressives resulting from the shock of Trump’s election. But not all of it. I personally have been involved in three examples of this revitalized democracy: the heated controversy about bike lanes, the Progressive takeover of the local Democratic Party, and a citizen’s ballot initiative to ban new oil wells in the county.Offshore_Oil_Rally005

I moved to the area from Germany and during my first week in the town, I was confronted with concerned citizens all over. It has not been a collective disgust with the new president, rather a very local thing.

We moved into a rental in the upscale neighborhood of Ferrini Heights where the smaller homes were going for $700,000 and the big ones for upwards of 3 million. At a party with my landlord’s friends, talk was all about new housing development, traffic and the troubles with the influx of new university students. While their talk did sound typical complaining, they were serious and they are organized. They are all members of a local resident’s organization, whose main purpose is to try to maintain ‘good ole SLO’ as it used to be. They are radically critical of the new, progressive city council in general and their plans to ween the city of carbon.

These and other concerned citizens rallied together to prevent the city from going through with new bicycle infrastructure. The controversy culminated at a city council meeting in February where the council planned to vote on planned bike lanes. The council chambers were packed and they had to open an overflow room with a live broadcast. For three hours citizens from both sides of the issue stood and stated their positions. Parents with children, the elderly and young professionals were present. My impression was that the statements were about 60% for bike lanes, 40% against. The opponents, though, were able to convince the council that they had to postpone their plans. Their main concern was the removal of parking spaces in front of their homes and they appeared ready to defend this space tooth and nail. While I found the opponents arguments weak and self-serving, the intensity of political engagement was heartening.

The second example could be seen as a backlash of the Trump election, or more favorably, a continuation of the Bernie Revolution. The SLO Progressives formed at the beginning of 2017 and by summer had become the largest democratic group in the county, dwarfing traditional, more conservative forces in local Democratic Party politics. Their meetings filled the local Guild Hall and were professionally organized. They steadfastly asked people to sign up as members, they had a clear agenda, facilitation and practiced speakers. They had quickly formed working groups oriented towards health care, women in politics and get out the vote campaigns. The focus of the group is on getting progressives elected, and in that way influencing local, regional and state politics. They call on politicians to pledge to not take any campaign contributions from the oil industry.

The third example is a local ballot initiative to ban fracking and new oil wells in the county. It is an example of direct democracy where citizens can directly vote on specific changes to laws and regulations and circumvent the cumbersome and often ineffective legislative process.

SLO County has traditionally not been the target of oil extraction. Nearby Kern County was much more suited for oil drilling. While the soil and rock under the county is full of oil, it is of poor quality and difficult to access. The county has, however, long been a key infrastructure point for oil from nearby counties and has suffered from numerous oil-related disasters. In 1988 whistleblowers uncovered the largest onshore oil spill in California history. The Union Oil Guadalupe oilfield had been leaking oil for decades. In 1994 it was discovered that oil spills had leaked over 400 gallons of petroleum in and around the local town of Avila Beach. The clean up involved tearing down a large part of downtown, removing massive amounts of contaminated soil, and rebuilding the city.

The ballot initiative calls to amend the County General Plan and sections of county code to prohibit well stimulation treatments and any new oil extraction. If we manage to collect around 9000 signatures before the end of April, the initiative will be placed on the November ballot for voter approval. Offshore drilling beyond three miles of the coast would not be affected, although the county would have to refuse building any infrastructure needed for offshore wells.

Beginning in January 2017, a small group of local citizens had been successful in gaining active support from county residents, draft the extensive and legally-sensitive text of the initiative, and launch a signature-signing campaign across the county. I heard about the initiative at a meeting of SLO Progressives in late summer of 2017 and was soon involved in updating and administering their website and user database and general planning for the campaign. The group created the Coalition to Protect SLO County, which consists of a core team of about 10 individuals who have a long history of fighting big oil. The Coalition was able to acquire the support of the Center for Biological Diversity, a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental protection. Part of their mission is to actively support local groups working to advance ballot initiatives.

Creating the ballot initiative from the beginning involved various stages: build a local movement and convene a group of dedicated volunteers, plan and implement the legal steps needed to gain county approval of the initiative, draft the actual text with the assistance of an attorney, plan and implement a campaign to collect signatures, plan and implement a voter campaign to get the initiative approved at the ballot in November. Unfortunately, the group also has to plan how to deal with a possible legal suit by big oil to stop the initiative before election day or to overturn it after it is passed.

Monterey County, just to the north of SLO, passed a similar initiative in 2016, called Measure Z. The oil industry invested $5.6 million dollars to fight Measure Z. Although the initiative passed, big oil was successful in the courts where they filed six lawsuits to challenge the measure. In December of 2017 Monterey County Superior Court decided to uphold the anti-fracking part of the measure but to overturn the ban on new oil wells. Local citizens have appealed and are presently awaiting a decision by the higher court.

Presently, late March 2018, the Coalition to Protect SLO County is running a huge signature-gathering campaign. In cities and towns across the county dozens of volunteers are standing in front of supermarkets, walking through farmer’s markets and approaching friends and family to ask if they want to sign the petition. So-called ‘city captains’ train  ‘circulators’ on the do’s and don’ts of collecting signatures, pass out and collect the petition packages with room for 50 signatures. Another team of volunteers is validating signatures to track progress. There are people involved in fundraising, media outreach and research.

February on the Central Coast

A friend from Germany just wrote a letter updating me about events with my soccer groups and local and national politics. His letter encouraged me to write an update on my life on the Central Coast of California. Our time here is more than half over, which makes me a bit wary but also happy to think of returning to good ole Germany.

The past days and weeks have been very eventful here. We have had great times with all our young visitors but we have also suffered a great tragedy. My brother-in-law, Andrew Ebright, passed away at a much too young age. It is a great loss for me, for my family, for my sister and her family, for all his friends. Andy was a wonderful man and a great friend. He had a talent for making any encounter fun and exciting. He always had a good joke up his sleeve, loved games and was the most hospitable person I know. Andy was also a terribly intelligent and thoughtful person. It was just a few years ago when I was here in California and was sitting in the yard with Andrew discussing racism. He eloquently argued that the concept of race is in itself flawed and wrong. How can you divide people up into a handful of races? It’s arbitrary and constructed. What race would a child have whose mother is from China and father from Africa? His thoughts helped me understand this issue much better. It’s hard to imagine he’s gone and the grief runs deep. This loss has again brought my family together with brothers and sisters converging in Morro Bay and warming calls and letters from family overseas.

It’s mid-February and we are having a cold spell. Cold for Central California, that is. We had a bit of frost this morning and a chilly breeze is blowing along the nearby hills and valleys. The cold and wind have brought clear air and amazing views. Susa and I took a walk yesterday along one of our favorite spots in Los Osos. It is the so-called Back Bay, a quiet oasis beyond the rough, windy power of the Pacific and protected by the “Sand Spit”, a long finger of land and a breakwater. We meandered along the sandy beach that stretches along a small peninsula. Turning the bend, the massive Morro Rock appeared in the distance, perhaps 4 km away. The ragged rocks and jagged outcroppings were crystal clear, it seemed I could almost reach out and touch them.

This afternoon I am sitting outside with my sun cap and light jacket and warming myself in the sun. My neighbor is repairing a table outside in front of his garage. He has shorts and a t-shirt on. I will miss being able to sit outside in the warm sun in February.

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Pismo Beach Pier, a one-hour bike ride from my house

In the last couple of months, I have gotten heavily involved in a ballot initiative designed to ban fracking and new oil wells in the county. Whithin two months we have to gather 10,000 signatures in order to qualify the initiative for the November election. Then the voters of the county can decide themselves if they want to amend county laws to reduce our reliance on oil and to protect local water. It’s funny, but being here I have gotten much more interested in local politics than I ever was in Germany.

I feel so lucky to be here and to have the privilege of working so little (2 days a week). On my frequent walks and hikes, I am constantly reminded of the beauty here. The hills are still mostly brown, but the deep blues of the ocean and the sky make up for that.

Our Trip to the “Bay Area”

Over the holiday vacation we took a road trip to the “Bay Area”. That refers of course to the San Francisco Bay Area. We also had time on two separate days to visit The City, which of course refers to San Francisco. I don’t know why this place had the audacity to name itself this way, but it works. If you say you are going to the Bay Area nobody would think you mean the area around the Santa Monica Bay, which looks actually larger than “the” Bay. Even the Monterey Bay, just south of San Francisco, equals its sister in the north in size and is actually geologically much more interesting. It is home to the underwater Monterey Canyon, at one mile its as deep as the Grand Canyon. I also don’t know of any other American city that refers to itself so proudly as The City. Only “The Big Apple” comes to mind, not that cool in my opinion.

I must admit, however, that “the” Bay is pretty cool. It’s surrounded by “the” City to the west, San Jose and Silicon Valley to the south, Oakland and Berkeley to the East, and Marin County to the North. We visited all those places except Silicon Valley (we are there on our computers all the time anyway).

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View from Corona Heights Park, S.F.

On our first day in San Francisco we got of the BART subway on Market Street and walked all the way through Chinatown and Little Italy over to Fisherman’s Wharf. The main attraction there ended up being a group of break dancers performing at Pier 39. We then walked along the Embarcadero back to the Ferry Building and Market St.

On our second day in The City we walked around the Mission District and up to the top of Corona Heights Park, a little mountain with an almost 360° view of the city. On the way up we enjoyed the quaint neighborhood of North Mission

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We saw this utopian vision painted on a building. Let’s make it happen!

with wide sidewalk, broken up with little garden patches and sitting areas. This is a real-life image of the utopian mural rendition we saw in the Mission. The girls continued walking to the west over to Golden Gate Park and I walked back to the Mission for a coffee meeting with an activist for the Economy for the Common Good.

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Sidewalk Utopia in North Mission

On our third day in the city we went to the Presidio and the Visitors Center at the Golden Gate Bridge. I was planning to just enjoy the view and get some cool pictures. Our adventuresome friend Lisa said, “Hey, can we walk across the bridge”. What, no way, I first said. With Julian, Joshua and baby Theresa long ago we had walked out to the “South Tower” and that was amazing in itself. I had never thought of actually walking all the way across.

I guess it takes a 17-year old German to think of something so wild. Susa agreed to drive the car over and Theresa held my hand all the way. I was OK as long as I stayed arm’s length from the rail guard and in my daughter’s safe grip. It was very exciting. The view from out there is wonderful and it is a majestic bridge.

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This is the coastline that awaited us in Marin, just over the Golden Gate Bridge

Another highlight of our trip was New Year’s Eve. We walked about 15 minutes up a dark road from our remote Youth Hostel to a lookout point where the four of us watched fireworks across the bay. The Golden Gate Bridge and the illuminated San Francisco skyline were the backdrop to the firework show.

I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story. Once again I felt like I am “Homing In” a bit more here in California. Although I grew up in the other “City” down south, I feel roots in the Bay Area because my dad grew up here and just because it’s California.

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We all did enjoy walking through the city!

Politics, Road Trip, thin Coffee and Meditating with Monks

We were lucky enough to be invited to a “Friendsgiving” potluck dinner with the San Luis Obispo (SLO) Progressives. The local “Guild Hall” was filled with over 100 folks and tables packed full of food. There was even live music and Susa and I got to practice some partner steps.

I’ve been going to the SLO Progressive monthly meetings. The group came out of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. I think originally they were called Our Revolution. The meetings are very well attended with maybe 50 or 60 people and extremely well organized. They have only been together for a year but are very active. In effect they are a Democratic Party group whose main project is to push progressive democratic candidates. That’s not really my thing but there are other committees doing other stuff. One group had a canvassing day where they knocked on doors to talk about single-payer health insurance. Another group is putting together a campaign to put an initiative on the ballot to ban fracking and any new fossil fuel production in the county. California has a great system of direct democracy. They only need around 9000 signatures to put the proposition on the ballot for next Nov. and the people of SLO county can then decide whether or not to stop oil and fraking production.

Politics in the US is crazy these days. Being in California, though, I feel about as close to the hatred and meanness coming from the White House as I did in Germany. My main connection is through the media. In the cool, progressive town I live in we seem well protected from Tr*&//mpf madness. I do hope and pray that they will not pass the terrible tax reform initiative this week. It looks to be a massive gift to the wealthy and a disaster for the general public.

Susa arrived safe and sound a few weeks ago and now we are four in our cute little house on Skyline Dr. Its a two-bed, two-bath place with a great living room and dining room. The kitchen is too small and is actually in a hallway-like space leading to the girl’s room. We manage well though. Our landlords just improved the kitchen and now we have a gas stove and a convection microwave oven that’s good enough to bake bread in. The bread around here really sucks.

We had a great week-long road trip in our minivan over Thanksgiving and went to Ventura, Joshua Tree National Park and San Diego. We left SLO at around 5 in the morning and while passing through the wine country just to the south, we were treated with the rising sun illuminating the fog rolling into the small valley.

I had promised Theresa a real American breakfast so we stopped at the International House of Pancakes in Santa Barbara. We weren’t disappointed. All the syrup you could eat in five different flavors. All the coffee we could drink in our own thermos. The pancakes and coffee haven’t changed in 30 years. The pancakes are fat and sweat and the coffee so thin you can see the bottom of the cup. Yum yum.

img_20171121_145909.jpgJoshua Tree National Park was incredibly beautiful and the sunset vistas from the mountain tops unbeatable. It was great for me to be back in the desert. I was brought back to the Great Peace March of 30 years ago when I walked across the entire country and spent about 4 weeks walking and camping in the Mojave Desert. Theresa couldn’t believe how I could have walked through this moon-like landscape. I actually can’t imagine how I did it either. We climbed up a Ryan Mountain and hiked into Hidden Valley. My favorite moment was at the end of the day just before sunset. The low-lying sun created a light which illuminated the trees and mountains.

One highlight was a morning retreat at Deer Park Buddihst Monastery near San Diego. Its part of the group around Thich Nhat Han. It started with a Dharma Talk, then a walking meditation, then a Thanksgiving potluck lunch under the shade of oak trees. Its a real sanctuary there and I want to return for a week-long retreat this winter or spring.

We stayed near Oceanside and after a long drive from the desert we arrived at the coast just as the sun was setting. I parked a couple blocks from the beach and we all ran over to the pier to catch an amazing sunset. IMG_20171122_164124The ocean water was calm and the surfers enjoyed the gentle waves. With the pier as a backdrop, the sky remained red for what seemed like an hour.

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Back in SLO the girls started their second trimester at SLO High. Theresa is happy to have a break from pre-calculus and is happy about her classes. We bought a ukulele yesterday and Lisa brought home a guitar so already last night the house was full of music.

Today, Susa and I walked to town for the first time. She injured her knee up top Ryan Mt. in Joshua Tree so she coasted part of the way on the bike. The walk took about a half an hour but was very nice. The neighborhoods are so pleasant here with the small houses and mostly lovely front yards. It was windy today and a bit cooler. For the end of November, the 70 degree weather is a welcome change from the 90 degrees we had last week in San Diego. The forecast for this week is 65-70 degrees F (around 15-20 C.) which can feel cold, but really pretty perfect. I know for Germany it sounds amazing. I hope you all are managing with the cold weather over there.

 

 

Susa arrives, Hollywood and my Home

It’s been a full, fun and exciting week. My wife, Susa, arrived safely in at the LA airport after having spent five days with our son Joshua near Stockholm, Sweden. Joshua is at a year-long school called Youth International Youth Initiative Program (yip.se) where he is taking seminars on great topics like restorative justice, the art of hosting, politics and governance, storytelling and much more. He lives and learns with a group of 29 youngsters from around the world. Susa got to visit him and see what its all about first hand. We are so happy for him that he discovered this wonderful place and is learning and experiencing so much.

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Joshua’s “Check-In” group at YIP

Before picking up Susa at the airport Theresa, Lisa and I took a spin through Beverley Hills and Hollywood. The girls took some wonderful pictures. It was fun for me to be there with them, although hanging around Hollywood and Vine is not exactly my favorite pastime. I think the pictures do a great job of expressing Theresa and Lisa’s experience.

The next day we got to visit my old home, the house I spent my first 17 years at. It still brings back such intense memories that I often had to pause for a deep breath.

It’s great having Susa with us. We enjoyed a night camping out at Refugio State Park north of Santa Barbara. After a ten-minute walk on the beach in the morning, we spend an hour scrubbing oil off our feet. The coast there is famous for oil. Apparently, a lot of it is naturally occurring, but all the oil spills over the years have certainly played a role.

Enjoy the photos.

 

Life at the Cafe

I’ve been to a slew of cafes around the world, mostly in California and Europe. You might say I have a penchant for them. My days in San Luis Obispo (SLO) are no different. There’s so much you can find out about a town, culture and politics in a cafe. Its Tuesday morning and I parked my car a bit outside of downtown SLO where it’s still free of charge. Walking downtown, cuddling my sister’s poodle, I began my search for the best place to set myself down in and feed my caffeine addiction. The one on the corner of Osos St. and Monterey wasn’t open yet and after a few minutes I gave up and ended at Starbucks. I try to avoid the chains, but sitting on the bench out front I also learn a lot about the town. Around the corner is one of the hangouts of the homeless residents and right next to me a guy is resting on one of Starbucks outside, plastic chairs. The guy looks pretty destitute and I would guess with major mental health issues. He can hardly keep his head up and his hands nervously fumble with an empty paper cup. Inside there’s a couple guys chatting in the corner next to the window. Their large, ruffled backpacks and long, unkempt hair make me assume they belong to the homeless crowd. The guy has an oversized Starbucks paper cup, so it looks like he purchased something. One redeeming factor for Starbucks is their tolerance for the homeless.

Cafes around here have a high tolerance for people just buying one coffee and hanging around for hours. Oops, like me ;-). Often you will see young and old with laptops hanging out for hours. I think for many it’s their office. This also tells a lot about the socio-economic situation. So many people in California are self-employed. Many may say, great, all that freedom. You are your own boss. You can determine your own working hours. The problem is, is that they are not doing it of their own free will. They can’t find steady, salaried employment so they work from contract to contract. Apparently, the employer and contractor save a bunch on taxes. Don’t know exactly how it works, but one way is by writing off travel expenses. The self-employed person says they drove 20 miles to visit a customer or even his own boss. Of course, the employer saves money on office space (thank you Starbucks), can pay the person only when the work is needed (sorry pal, don’t have any work for you this week). The workers have little recourse. They don’t have a union representing them and fighting for their interest. They have a ton of competition, so if they don’t play the game, the employer will just take the next guy. So, take your laptop, get a nice table at Starbucks, order your Soy Latte and you’re set for the day. How in the world somebody can earn enough money doing this and pay upwards of $1500 (1250€) a month rent is beyond me.

Some more impressions of SLO Life

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Like the Signs

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Theresa with her cousin Kalle and his friend Joel at SLO High