Tuesday, May 25, 2004

California Dreaming

The other night Chef had a dream that he was back in Arcata, where he found himself working at Lamps by Hilliard again. In the dream, he was initially relieved to be away from his current insane stress-case of a boss, yet he soon became filled with disappointment at taking a step back in his career after all the years he has spent moving forward.

I told him I have had that exact dream at least a hundred times since we moved here, complete with the wildly conflicting emotions. At first I am always thrilled to be back, eager to jump on my bike and head off to Moonstone Beach or sip Guatemalan Dark Roast by the frog pond at Cafe Mokka while enjoying my favorite snarky local paper. But then it slowly dawns on me that if I stay I will be stuck again in the same old dead-end jobs and hand-to-mouth existence I fled so many years ago, and I spend the rest of the dream trying desperately to get back to the Bay Area.

Escaping away to the simple rhythms of the North Coast is a wistful fantasy that sustains me whenever I feel overwhelmed by my responsibilities, my mortgage payment or my job. Oh, how I would love to run away and never again hear the words "webinar" or "intrapreneurship", to gather with people who do not constantly discuss mortgage refinancing or interest rates or crown moulding, to make impromptu plans with friends without the use of Blackberry Wireless technology.

The last time we visited there was a few years ago, when Bug was just a baby. I had recently been promoted to manager at work and was excited to arrive triumphantly in a shiny gold Camry, cell phone in hand, with money to spend on the restaurants and jewelry and books I could never afford when I lived there. Frankly, I thought my newfound corporate experience and internet savvy had transformed me into a vastly more sophisticated person than my friends who were still trapped behind the Redwood Curtain. Luckily I dropped that pretense as soon as I arrived. My cell phone never left the nightstand in our cottage (I doubt I could have gotten any reception in tiny Trinidad anyway), and my snazzy new car rapidly became covered with sand and dust and stuffed with surfboards and wetsuits and coolers full of picnic supplies, just like my beat-up old Chevy Celebrity was years before.

It turned out that people HAD kept up with technology, to a certain degree. Most of our friends owned cell phones, but they weren't glued to their ear at all times, interrupting meals and conversations. Nearly everyone was hooked up to the internet by that point, but they still picked up the phone and called people - or just ran into them at the usual haunts, Wildberries Market or the Plaza Grill - instead of relying on email and Instant Messaging.

The first day we stopped by the foundry to visit Janene, Chef's old boss. She mentioned that everyone was out having lunch at the Noodle House, where they go together daily to slurp down udon with Chili Lime sauce and listen to Fresh Air on NPR. I couldn't help but think unfavorably of my own coworkers, who were more likely to spend the lunch hour obsessing over fat grams at Jamba Juice while thrilling to the demented ravings of Michael Savage. Afterwards we walked down to the plaza in the center of town, where the very sight of my beloved indie bookstore, in full gleeful celebration of Banned Books Week, made me ache with longing.

By the end of the trip, and much to my relief, I did not find myself wanting to drop everything and move back as I had feared I would. I saw things I hadn't noticed or cared about when I lived there, like the fact that hardly anyone I knew was making a decent living at their jobs. Everyone was scraping by, taking side gigs pulling espressos and tending bar, or getting sucked into marketing schemes selling multivitamins or water purifiers. And even while enjoying a lavish brunch in the Hilliard's cheery, sunny kitchen, a question nagged at me like a pesky insect: How is it that these creative, talented and successful business owners can travel the world searching for funky native artwork to adorn their new house, yet cannot afford health coverage for their employees? Even the town itself did not beckon as brightly as I remembered. The once-charming town square was overrun with squalor, taken over by filthy squatters begging for change and spewing drunken obscenities. And I, the erstwhile hippie chick, found myself firmly on the "can't somebody sweep these bums OUT of here?" side of the issue, with nothing but eye-rolling impatience for those who insisted "c'mon man, they're just people, they have the right to be there too!"

It was then that I knew we had probably outgrown the place. But whenever life gets a little too much for us, it is always nice to know that "we'll always have Humboldt." At least in our dreams.


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