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.

 

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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

Happy in the 5th Happiest City

Usually I am slower and less spontaneous with my posts, but I just felt like I had to get this out there.

Together with Gallup, National Geographic rated San Luis Obispo the 5th happiest city in the United States. Last year it actually had first place. Now I know why I like it here so much.

Find out more: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/united-states/happiest-cities-united-states-2017/

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By Ken Broomfield [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of the happiest place, I just had a great talk with Paula Francis who is walking from Big Sur to Los Angeles as part of the HappinessWalk.com. She has walked over 4,400 miles. From their website:

“Crossing a big country with walking shoes and a recorder, Paula Francis is researching and reporting on happiness by interviewing thousands of people during the 8,000 mile Happiness Walk.”

She interviewed me about my work with the Economy for the Common Good (ECG). Her group works on the Gross National Happiness project, which is also part of the concept behing the ECG.

 

Off to College and Student Debt

This café called Sally Loo’s in San Luis Obispo is full of students and students with their parents. It’s the first week of school and the parents are treating their youngsters to the final breakfast before letting them go into the whirlwind of college life. What a momentous occasion for parents and kids. I haven’t experienced it yet with my own kids. Maybe one day. It is kind of an American thing, though. In this cafe today it is a rich white kid, American thing. At least that’s what it looks like here. My new friend from Ghana told us yesterday that he ups the diversity rate here on campus drastically. “This school is very bad in diversity,” he explained. Walking around town, you see tons of young college kids, but hardly any are black, Hispanic or Asian. Cal Poly, that’s the colloquial for the university here, is extremely difficult to get into. For some reason, minorities don’t manage to make it. Other elite schools like Stanford and Berkeley are much more diverse.

I wonder what it’s like for this mother to be dropping off her 18 year old son. He’s a high-achiever for sure. Straight A’s in high school and honors on top of that. She certainly has high expectations and he better deliver because it’s costing a fortune. Mom’s flipping the bill though. Millions of other kids across the country are finishing school with a $40,000 debt hanging over like a dark cloud. Not this rich kid from LA, though.

What’s the problem with that? The kid worked hard, he’s smart and he made it. It’s meritocracy, right? Well partly. How can that be fair in a country with mass incarceration and tragic levels of poverty? A kid growing up in a disadvantaged family is almost never going to manage to get perfect grades, no matter how smart she is. The rich mother here in the café has been preparing her son for this for years. Countless, expensive programs for improving SATs, private tutors for math and extra-curricular activities.

Maybe I am just viewing it all through my filtered, liberal glasses. Well, of course I am. We all do. Some would defend the education system. The kids with the best grades will get into the colleges. How can you ignore, though, that the socio-economic background of a kid plays a role? How can it be fair that some kids have to take out high-interest loans to finance college while others have mom and dad send in the checks each month?

Student debt is a gigantic problem in this country and finally there is a national discussion about making college tuition free. In California, for example, junior colleges are beginning to waive tuition fees.

These pictures are out of context, but what the hey.

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Early evening fisherman in Morro Bay

 

 

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Cool statement posted in front of the mayor’s house

Madonna, Shopping, Surfing and left-leaning Democrats

So what’s America like? How are the people different? Are Americans all fat, lazy and pro-Trump? Difficult to answer. Maybe these words will help answer that question.

I have utilized part of my time and energy simply soaking in California, gobbling it up would be another way of putting it. Smelling the flowers, gazing up at the trees, walking barefoot on the hot sand, watching the sea lions in the bay, walking through the neighborhoods and examining homes, hiking up the local hills and gazing over the city.

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Interacting with other humans is also part of my empirical study (hey, I could get grant money and publish my results!). Last night I was at a meeting of the SLO Progressives, previously SLO for Bernie. It’s basically a democratic club working on getting “left-leaning” candidates elected. They are new but many people are involved, they are cooperating with other organizations, and they are very well organized. The meeting was well structured; general announcements, short statements from candidates, then statements from three working groups. I already signed up to canvas Morro Bay about single-payer health care. That means knocking on doors and passing out information and dialoging about health care.

That was my second political event here and what was so cool is meeting other people. It seems very easy here in California to engage in conversation with strangers. I was at a talk recently by Jodi Evans, co-founder of Code Pink. I just walked into an almost empty lecture hall (it filled up later) and immediately elderly woman said, “Hi, what’s your name, nice to meet you.” To her friend she said “Hey Jill, this is Gus, he’s from Germany.” After the event she invited Theresa and I to her farm for dinner. Cool. After the event I started talking to this guy and it turns out he was also from Palos Verdes. We went to neighboring high schools.

Aside from just soaking in California, I have tons of energy to do things. I feel almost obsessed with hiking, surfing, biking, drinking coffee, working some. That’s good though, I think. Right now I am also working on a grant proposal with Christian Felber from the Economy for the Common Good. The proposal is about reforming the UN and making it more democratic. I think it’s a great proposal and if the jury does too we could get lots of dinero.

Part of my empirical study is the shopping experience in America. The other day the girls and I went shopping with my sister to the giga-store Costco. The first thing our friend Lisa noticed were the supersized shopping carts. They are about 50% larger than normal ones. As it turned out, it was too small for us and we needed a second one.

As I walked into the store, I was bothered by how bright it was and how high ceilings were. The shelves of products tower endlessly towards the rafters. It looks like a warehouse, except for the tasters. They have tons of little servings of bread, meat, fruit and drinks. I was told that I have to buy toilet paper at Costco. “It’s the best in the world,” they said. I’m thinking, what, it’s just toilet paper? What’s the difference. Is there really good and bad toilet paper. Sorry, never noticed the difference. Come to think of it, though, I have experienced really bad toilet paper. It was in the German Democratic Republic, behind the iron curtain while it still hung. The toilet paper was dark grey and rough. It actually didn’t look like paper, rather more like the surface of a poorly-maintained street.

Anyways, I bought the toilet paper. The 50 rolls filled the first of our two shopping carts and should last for the remaining 10 months of our stay.

I continued down the aisles and noticed myself being overcome by a strange, elated sensation. Everything is so cheap and of such high quality that I felt driven to just buy everything. Gallon-size containers of walnuts; yes, take them. Six high quality t-shirts for $10, yes. A life-size teddy bear for $20, yes, uh, well no. OK, I caught myself. I will not purchase the 6-foot stuffed bear. It’s pretty darn cute and cuddly, but I realized it will not fit in my bed. Ok how about the sheepskin blanket? Yes, blanket. It’s not just one sheep skin, it’s about four sewed together into a blanket. Its only $35, can you believe it? Ok, I won’t take it. Oh, but look over there! A 1.1 kg bag of tortilla chips for only 4 dollars. I cannot resist. I know it will make me fat as hell, but what a bargain. Hey, a 1.3 kg bag of pistachios, yes, no questions asked. This store is fantastic. Bargains everywhere.

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I am elated, so happy. Then we get to the cashier and the super friendly cashier lady informs me that I get a second bag of bagels for free and the even friendlier bag girl (actually she looked to be about 45) said she’s a fast runner and she would be glad to run the 200 meters to the back corner of the store to get it for me. What an amazing place. Then I gave them my credit card, entered my PIN and pressed ok and happy as a clam. When I got to the car my daughter informed me that the escapade just cost us 230 dollars and 48 cents. “What,” I thought, “how in the world did that happen?”

It’s been a month and a half, well actually a month and three-quarters, since I landed here in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. That’s a strange line, isn’t it? Who is free and who are the brave? Comes out of the national anthem, holy stuff around here. Questioned by few. I was at a football game at my daughter’s high school and was surprised when everyone suddenly stood up before the game started. At first I didn’t know why they were standing up. But then I noticed them putting their hands to their hearts and singing along with the national anthem.

After that game the national news and social media have been full of discussions about the protests during the national anthem. Football players recently continued “taking the knee”. This means kneeling on one knee. They did this instead of standing during the national anthem. Trump continued his bigotry and went so far as to call the people protesting sons-of-bitches. Is this guy for real? What a racist, what a fool. He has gone way over the line once again.

I wanted to tell you about my Saturday. I first went for a guided hike up Madonna Mountain at 9am. My alarm clock forgot to wake me so I was ten minutes late. The first thing the guide told us was that Madonna Mountain is officially called Cerra called Cerro San Luis Obispo. The townsfolk call it Madonna Mountain because it is owned by the Madonna family (no relation to the singer and sometimes-actress).

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Madonna Mtn. and Bishop Peak (right). By Ken Broomfield – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Bloody-libu using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20383360

 

The hike only took about an hour but there was a beautiful view of the city and I could see all the way to Morro Bay. The guide showed us the greenish rock, common to the area and called serpentinite.

After that the girls and I met my sister and her daughter for some surfing. The waves weren’t too great. I actually felt like most of the time I was diving over and under whitewater. For the Germans out there this is the Gischt. This is funny, because in German there is a distinct word for the white, foamy part of a wave after it breaks. The colloquial term in English is whitewater. Wikipedia, humankind’s newest source of THE TRUTH, says whitewater is the white, rough water found in rivers. I would actually agree, though I am no expert. Ask any surfer and they will say whitewater. Look it up on wikipedia, and you will find only “sea foam”.

It was a beautiful afternoon at the beach, though. The skies were clear and it wasn’t too windy. The waves sucked though. I noticed small, or miniscule, improvements in my surfing abilities. I am a patient guy, though.

Hot days and landscaping in SLO

It’s crazy hot here in SLO today. 99° Fahrenheit (37 Celsius) today and the air is bad. I felt ozone in my lungs walking over to the cafe this morning. Just 20 miles from here up in Paso Robles they are having record temperatures upwards of 112 F (44 C). That hurts.  I would prefer heading over to Morro Bay where its “only” 80° (27°). People say that it never gets this hot here in SLO. Welcome climate change. At the same time, there’s this disastrous Hurricane Harvey in Texas. They say it’s the worst rainstorm in US history.

A few days earlier

Actually, I wanted to make more progress on my story (next book?) but writing in this journal is easier and I am so full of impressions these days. This morning I walked out my front door and looked down the street and saw a huge fog bank taking over a group of homes down the street. I’ve never seen a thick bank of fog rolling up a city street before. The area is hilly and leads right up to the base of Bishop Peak where I have often seen huge fog-cloud-formations encroaching on the rocky summit.

I grabbed my camera, put my sandals on and headed up towards the trail, hoping to get some photos of the fog covering the valley below. By the time I was up a bit higher, the fog had burned off but I was not disappointed and continued up the trail into the oak tree groves and brown hills at the base of Bishop Peak. There were maybe a dozen other early morning hikers, joggers and dog walkers on the trail. I enjoy the fact that so many people in the area get out and take walks in this beautiful area.

Pretty yards

What most caught my attention this morning were the landscaped yards and houses on my way back through the quiet, wide streets towards my house. There is such a colorful mixture of homes and yards around here. Homeowners have gotten very creative over the years with their landscaped yards, steps and paths. When I was growing up, people just had lawns and fences. Now many or most of the lawns are gone and gravel, rocks, succulents and trees have taken over. Drip irrigation is the mainstay.

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Not the greatest yard but very American

The water prices are probably the main motivation for people moving towards drought-resistant landscapes. I spoke with a neighbor who was caring for his plants out near the sidewalk. It’s the same guy who offered me a pump as he saw me pushing my bike down the street. He was saying that his water bill is very high. He has converted away from lawn but the patches of grass still cause the high bills.  Just checking wikipedia I discovered the term xeriscaping to describe this type of planting.

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Later I fixed the flat on my bike, threw it in my Toyota Sienna and drove 10 miles (16km) over to the beach city of Los Osos. I parked on the edge of town and rode up and down the charming residential streets. The town is older and, in some places, run down. Riding down 6th Street I see tiny houses on lots void of any landscaping or care. Some to the houses are dilapidated and seemingly empty of inhabitants. Just down the block, though, I find another small house, but this one has fresh, red paint with white trim and an elderly woman caring for her flowers. She has small signs of “welcome” “peace” and “enjoy life”.

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tree in Baywood

barber in MB.jpgAnother favorite building of mine is the barbershop in Morro Bay. As I walked by this place, I was rather shocked to see the two barbers occupying the two chairs. They were under 30, had tattooed arms and were staring straight into their cell phones. I almost wanted to tell them that nobody is going to go in their if they don’t clean up their image a bit.

 

 

Busy days, some down time and “home”

Today is an unusual day. I have no plans, no dates, no sports, no yoga, no events to attend. This is a welcome change. Just the last two days are an example of how busy I’ve been. On Monday morning, I went to my sister’s house and from about 10-3pm helped tear down her old kitchen. Then we drove over to the beach and went surfing until about 5pm. Then I hurried home, grabbed my new bike and rode over to 6 o’clock Yoga in the Park in San Luis. Yesterday was similar. After cleaning up the house I went for coffee with my buddy Jim, then drove over to the Damon-Garcia Sports Fields and played soccer for an hour and a half. After a small lunch, I picked up the girls from school (in my car) and we drove over to Morro Bay to celebrate my niece’s birthday party.

Today the girls are in school and I’m on my own. As predicted, I ended up in a downtown coffee shop and hope to do some writing (one paragraph already done!!!). In September, I will start working for my university one day a week and for the Economy for the Common Good (ECG) for half a day. I will also continue helping my sister renovate her kitchen, do some additional volunteer word for the ECG and continue with surfing, yoga, hiking and soccer. I may sign up for the Guerrilla Gardening Club, a group of folks that goes around cleaning up and planting public land around Morro Bay. Maybe I will get involved in the local cycling initiative. There’s a store in town that offers free tools for people to fix their bikes and also has volunteers helping fix bikes. They are also involved in advocacy work to improve the safety and comfort of city biking.

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By Leif Arne Storset – originally posted to Flickr as Bishop Peak, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1820267

Actually, I may just take a hike up Bishop Peak this afternoon. The trail head is a three minute walk from my house. The peak is 1500 feet (470m) high and the trail is beautiful. The area is brown now as usual, unlike in the picture.

Check out my video report from Bishop Peak.

Home

Some of the major topics of my book Homing In were living in a foreign country, cross-cultural experiences, speaking a foreign language and experiencing home. Those are loaded issues and I want to explore them on my American journey. I am pretty sure I won’t be able to sufficiently answer them and it will be a challenge to approach them.

One question will be whether I feel more at home here, more “at ease”. I’m not sure yet but have had some interesting reactions. The feeling of being an outsider has faded, though not completely. In Germany I sometimes still feel like a foreigner, like I don’t totally belong. The feeling can be spurred on by comments a friend might make at the bar after soccer. He could be telling a little story to the group and reference a German band, musician or comedian of the seventies or eighties. He’ll then look at me, pause, and say “Oh, Gus, you probably don’t know Loriot, do you?” It may seem like a harmless comment and in many ways, it is harmless. The problem is, is that it reminds me of my differentness. I think is has an additional group function of defining the inner circle. But that’s for another time.

Here in my new home on the Central Coast of California I can claim to be a local, a non-stranger, a non-foreigner. I did not grow up here, rather about 200 miles south of here, but for California that is local. Nobody can treat me like a stranger here. Although I’ve been gone for 25 years this place belongs to me (not in the literal sense, ok).

Despite many factors that could make me feel uneasy here – like crime, widespread poverty, homelessness, turbo consumerism, fires, earthquakes, mountain lions – there is a certain sense of feeling at ease that I missed in Germany. Still, though, I feel rather at home and like I belong here.

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The girls enjoying our awesome new car

I was talking to one of the guys I played soccer with yesterday. After I told him I have been living in Germany for 25 years, he told me that he had moved here from Mexico 20 years ago. I don’t know how much our experiences have in common, but I did sense something. In the dominant culture of California there is a lot of discrimination and racism against Latinos. On the more personal side, though, they can continue to speak Spanish here and probably have a lot of family living here. In fact, California was once part of Mexico. It was the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 which gave the US ownership of California, about half of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and even parts of Wyoming and Colorado. I don’t know if that gives Mexican-Americans more of a sense of home while living here. They must feel a large sense of community and belonging because the Latino culture is so widespread here.