Rita photo by Todd
“He walked joyously, triumphantly, through the peace and beauty of springtime in California.” Katharine Grey
My great grandmother Katharine Grey wrote a pair of novels Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold, published by Little Brown in the 1930s. Based loosely on the experiences of my paternal ancestors, Rolling Wheels is about a family coming to California from Indiana via wagon train in the years before the Gold Rush of 1849, and Hills of Gold is about that same family living in California during the Gold Rush.
Throughout my childhood, my father impressed upon me that we were real native Californians, being descended on my father’s side from people who came here before California was even a state—never mind the indigenous people who lived here for thousands of years before my Anglo ancestors arrived, or the Mexicans who settled here hundreds of years before the first Anglos came to California.
I was also repeatedly told that my ancestors came to California in the same large wagon train that included the ill-fated Donner party, except my ancestors made it over the Sierras before the onset of winter and founded the town of Fremont while the Donners starved and ate each other.
And this is some of why when I travel to Oregon, I think of Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea and the Oregon Trail and pioneers and the wilderness that was Oregon and California before cars and freeways and computers and everything that has transpired in the last little while of human history.
Marcia and I just returned from an eight-day drive-about in Oregon, and the trip was a Big Deal for the likes of me, one who rarely leaves our watershed here on the Mendocino coast and rarely rides in a motorized vehicle for more than a few minutes at a time every few days. We spent two nights on the Oregon coast, four nights in Portland, a night in Bend, a night in Eugene, and another night on the Oregon coast before returning to California. We took many hikes, ate many good meals, communed with good friends, and saw many sights, some marvelous, some not so marvelous—a fine trip all in all.
The biggest motivating factor for making the trip was to visit our friends Bob and Rita who recently moved to Portland from our neck of the woods. They have both become adept at navigating the byways of Portland and were marvelous guides and hosts as we explored that sprawling metropolis full of trees and roses and bridges and breweries and cafés.
On our last full day in Portland, we took the light rail from a station near Rita and Bob’s house to the center of downtown. A few decades ago, Portland became the first large metropolitan area in America to begin using most of the monies returned to them by the federal government (from the federal tax on gasoline) to create an urban transportation system that would make a good life possible for city people who don’t drive cars. Thus Portland has an excellent and ever-expanding light rail and trolley system second to none west of the Atlantic seaboard.
While riding the light rail into downtown Portland, I became aware that everyone in the crowded car, save for Marcia, Todd, Bob, and Rita, was staring into some sort of portable computer and occasionally diddling the keyboard: small and large smart phones, pads, and laptops. Everyone. No one was looking out a window or at another person. The young woman sitting in front of me was scrolling through photographs of tattooed naked women posed provocatively; and the man sitting beside her was playing a violent video game and snorting every time he killed something.
When we detrained downtown, I noticed that many of the people walking around and sitting in cafés and on benches were also staring into portable computer screens and jabbing them with their thumbs. In fact, save for the legions of homeless people occupying downtown Portland, almost everyone who was not walking fast or riding a bike was staring into a screen and diddling. For some years now I have been aware of the entrainment-to-screens phenomenon in America, but I had never before seen this mass entrancement on such a huge urban scale; and I was both astonished and weirded out, if you know what I mean.
A few days later in Eugene, we were eating good Indian food with our friends David and Joan and Eileen. David is an elementary and middle school music teacher who combines song, dance, comedy, marimbas, ukuleles, drumming, improvisation—you name it—to create exciting and engaging musical experiences for his students culminating in fabulous group performances.
“But,” he said, while telling me about various aspects of his work, “I now feel the most important thing I can do for my students is give them time to engage with me and each other and their own creative impulses without interfacing with their diddle boxes. Because interfacing with their diddle boxes is the main thing most of them do all the time now.”
“If we live, we live; if we die, we die; if we suffer, we suffer; if we are terrified, we are terrified. There is no problem about it.” Alan Watts
There is a square in downtown Portland, one of the main squares, that has lots of places to sit and gawk at passersby, and in one part of this square there is a small parabolic amphitheater made of bricks. If one stands in the center of the parabola facing the ascending tiers of brick half-circles, and one speaks aloud at a normal volume, one’s voice sounds incredibly loud and clear in one’s ears—a totally neato auditory experience.
So I’m standing in the center of the parabola facing a young woman who is sitting slightly above me in the amphitheater and facing in my direction, though not seeing me. She is hooked up to her smart phone with wires connected to tiny earphones plugged into her ears, and she is diddling her screen.
I say, “Hello there,” and the words sound loud and clear in my ears. And then I say to the young woman, “You’re doing this aren’t you? You’re making this happen.”
She frowns quizzically at me and takes the earphone out of her right ear. “Are you talking to me?” she asks, her voice remarkably sonorous.
“Yes,” I say, nodding. “You’re doing something to make my voice sound loud and clear in my ears, aren’t you?”
After a moment of silence between us, a sweet smile claims her face and she nods in agreement.