Ojai Valley, California

     The sun sets over the mountains to the west, the fading light reflecting off the rolling canyon walls from a bright yellow dimming to the somber color of rust.  The shadows contend with the sun's dying light, the rust contrasting with the deepening shades, until darkness covers all and night has fallen, finally.  At an indeterminate moment between dusk and darkness one cricket and then another begins to chirp, and soon the desert canyons hum with their endless undulating cadence.  The sunset is a drama repeated daily, 365 times per year, for free.

     When I was younger I could not have been bothered to endure 45 uninterrupted  minutes watching the sunset; it would have been tedious to sit so long with only my thoughts for company.  The blood-red sinking sun, the lengthening shadows, the creeping darkness, and the emergent stars would have been unentertaining.  Now it is the highlight of my day.

     I currently reside in Ojai, an artist colony some 73 miles northwest from Los Angeles on the "Gold Coast" near Santa Barbara.  Nestled between arid Southern California foothills along the Ventura River approximately 14 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, Ojai is one of the few east-west valleys in the world, an aberration of nature.  My home lies at the end of several hundred yards of sinuous private road punctuated by potholes near the Thatcher School, snuggled into the ridges in the northeast corner of the valley.  I walk 50 yards from my front door and I find myself literally in the Los Padres National Forest.  Weekends I go for long bike rides through the desert foothills around Lake Casitas to Carpinteria and then back again along the seacoast, completing the loop.  I hike around the peaks surrounding Mt. Nordhoff or hunt in the wild backcountry east of the Sespe Wilderness.  It takes me all day, but I return home at dusk tired and satisfied.  I  shower and clean up, and then I pour myself a glass of wine and watch the sunset.  I make myself a hearty, tasty meal and then retire.  It is clean healthy living.

     It is country living, and when I make the return trip from work I am in for the evening.  In the country stepping out for a quick bite at the corner cafe is not an option, as it is in the city.  You are too far out, too removed to want to venture back into civilization.  To saddle up and drive 15-minutes to arrive at the nearest store is not worth the effort.  One evening, for example, I decided to stretch my legs and walk the couple of miles into town to grab a snack at the local market.  I donned a thick jacket, warm gloves, and my UCLA baseball cap, but after taking 10 steps from my door I realized it was so entirely dark I couldn't see my hand in front of my face.  I promptly turned around and went back inside.  After sunset falls and it is dark I settle in and prepare for bed, and when the sun rises and the light shines through my window I get up: my circadian rhythms are closely attuned to nature.  I find myself going to sleep hours before I did when I lived in the city, and then waking up much earlier and easier the next morning.  The weather can quickly turn inclement, and it is a lonely thing to be alone and far from human company when the wind whips at your windows.  Occasionally frost and frigid rains descend upon and envelop the valley; but when it is cold I put logs in the fireplace, start a raging fire, and snuggle up.  There is no ill weather or lonely rural remove that cannot be at least partially counteracted by a warm fire, a thick blanket, and a good book.

     At night the coyotes serenade me, their hysterical pack yelps suggesting wounded prey and rapine.  (Domestic cats and pet dogs fare poorly in coyote country.)   I woke up one early morning with a stabbing pain in my thigh to find a smothered black spider in my bed which had managed to sting me before it died.  For the next 24-hours I had cramps in all the large muscles of my right leg, accompanied my general nausea.  (Who would have known something so small could cause so much pain?)   A rodent took up residence in my car engine and ate through all my wires. It cost me $250 to repair the damage.  The animal world is much in evidence.  I have never in my life seen so many bugs and creepy crawlers.  It can get eerily quiet out here.  I love it.  Horseback riders share the roads with the automobile.

     I am a city boy, educated in Los Angeles and having dwelled there for most of the past thirteen years. I came to decide, however, it was not healthy to live in the city long-term with all the corruption, poverty, mess, violence, crowding, and traffic congestion.  "Life is too short to sit in rush hour traffic hour after hour!" I told myself, and I longed for a simpler, richer life.  I was tired of rude people with cell phones driving luxury BMW sedans.  Almost every weekend I found myself fleeing the metropolis for the clean air and open spaces for honest workouts and peace of mind.  Finally, I asked myself, "If you spend all your Saturdays and Sundays out in the country, what does that say about you?  Why are you living in the city?  Why not live in peace and serenity all the time and not only on weekends, if you like it so much?"  After months of careful planning I sent out resumes, interviewed for teaching positions, landed the dream job, rented a moving truck, filled it with my books and few other possessions, and now live here in the Ventura River and Ojai Valley region of Ventura County.  

     Life here IS different.  The people are different.  If Los Angeles boasts masses of immigrants scrambling to survive in a new country and desperate impoverished city dwellers eking out a living on the margins of society, it also has the educational and business elites: urbane, ambitious, cosmopolitan, and ultra-educated.  Ventura tends toward the working-class, the common man.  But while there is not so much bitter poverty and dog-eat-dog violence there also is little "culture" in terms of museums, universities, businesses, and the meeting and matching of minds and ideas.  Nobody in Ojai works 70-hours per week or wants to start a cutting-edge "dot.com" technology company.  Nobody mistakes working-class Oak View, Miners Oaks, or Casitas Springs (neighboring Ojai Valley communities) for Silicon Valley or downtown L.A.  This place is marked by quiescence and natural beauty, not the crowded hustle and bustle of humanity or strife and contention.  The people may tend towards the "simple" in terms of their exposure to overseas travel, other cultures, and higher education, but they are also much friendlier and down to earth.  That counts for much, in my opinion.  Even amidst a certain amount of poverty and neglect the social fabric is intact: people here seem to take care of each other.  Ojai does sport a vibrant but small community of misty-eyed New Age mystics, prep school hired help, and entertainment industry-honchos hiding out, but I have not and most likely will not associate much with them.  I moved here not to live near the "right" people but because there aren't many people.  I relocated to Ojai to get away from people.

    There is not terribly much choice in terms of entertainment or shopping: corner stores named after the owner ("Scotty's Liquor," "Dahl's Market"), and neighborhood outposts ("Bart's Books," "Calypso Bar and Grill") catering to minor shopping and small products not worth driving to acquire: if one wants a large selection or big ticket items, one must leave to get it.  There are clearly aspects of city life that cannot be replicated in the country.  I miss, for example, the easy regular access to world-class classical music that I enjoyed in Los Angeles.  This cannot be redressed, except by traveling tedious long distances.  Hence I go without.  I fear it cannot be remedied.

     But for the most part, I do not lament my change in scenery.  Life here is not without the bare necessities; I bring my library and music with me; I own copies of most of the "classics' of poetry and philosophy, as well as the essential core of the Western musical repertoire (at least music before the 20th century).  (Music and books are the only subjects in which I have ever invested serious money.  If I had to choose between books and music and food and water, I am not sure what I would decide.)   And if out in the country I am more removed from the society of thinkers in my own country and time, I am as much a part of the larger community of thinkers and believers throughout history as ever I was.  These ancestors of mine - my brothers Seneca and Boethius and Erasmus and Montaigne and Emerson - they line the walls of my library, as well as reside in my heart and mind along with their examples and teachings.  This has not changed by my moving residences.  I try to live always as if in the presence of the wise and the good, as did Sir Thomas More with the elder Pico.  They know my innermost thoughts and I hear their prescient voices reminding me of this or that, pointing me in one direction or another.  They are never too busy to speak with me.  They never fail to have some insight to share or advice to offer.  I never leave them empty-handed.  I rarely leave them unsatisfied.  They would travel with me even to prison where without any books at all I would have to feed on memories and recollections.  They can strip you of all possessions and throw your body in the darkest pit, but they can't take away what you have learned.  They can't rob you of your learning.  They can't fleece you of your faith.  The mind is inviolate, and its richest fruits cannot be defiled, unless you yourself defile them.  This is the same wherever one lives, and it is of all things most important.

    What else?  Do I miss out on up and coming talents?  The latest literary fashions?  The social force of the moment?  I am not interested in participating in a movement or being "up to date."  And I have long since stopped voraciously exploring different genres and reading diverse authors in scattershot fashion, as I did when I was younger.  Now I concentrate my focus like a laser on those few classics of genius that "are to be chewed and digested slowly and surely."  I read more closely and fully; I swallow less and digest it better.  I scrutinize difficult passages again and again.  I exchange breadth for depth; I dig more deeply where I tread.  I read to the purpose and to understand, not to explore and divert.  It is not that I am less curious, but I am curious in a different way.  I rarely read anything written less than 50 years ago.  I do not waste my time with mediocrities.  As much as possible I try to live deliberately, consciously, and well.  I try to live slowly and thoroughly.  Solitude is a boon rather than a hindrance to this way of life, and so I do not miss the mixing of city life.  

     I am not oblivious to the rest of the world.  One eye looks abroad, gazes on the happenings outside of Ojai, and remains engaged with the wider world.  I still get the "The Atlantic Monthly," "Harper's," and (most importantly) "The New York Review of Books" in the mail: no important occurrence or trend in the larger world goes unnoticed by me, while the unimportant ones go both unnoticed and unlamented.  I still care about and have strong opinions on politics and culture, the foreign countries I have visited and studied, and the fate of peoples elsewhere.  It is not an either/or proposition.  Any new book of distinction or rare undiscovered jewel of classical music that comes to my attention can easily be purchased over the Internet and shipped to me within a day or two - I need not go without.  I can cook myself the curry and pasta dishes I cannot find in local restaurants.  (In fact, I prefer this to spending yet another night in the company of strangers in a restaurant.)   The music of Mozart and Rachmaninoff rings forth from my doorway.  In short, much of the richness of city life I bring with me to the country.  If I were ever, for example, to have children and raise them here in the Ventura River and Ojai Valley region, what my offspring would lack in exposure to art and ideas they would imbibe from earliest age in the home.  

     Life in Ventura is not perfect, and there are quasi-gangs around and occasional gang-violence.  If one looks for it, one can find graffiti on walls and senseless crimes reported in the newspaper's police blotter.  But the toughest Ventura gang would get its ass kicked by the wimpiest L.A. gang.  I can see a Ventura gangster taking offense at this, and wishing to prove me wrong.  But really it is a fact which instead of offense should prompt pride.  In short, the quality of life in Ventura is high.  Problems exist but are manageable, and neighbors look out for one another.  There is a strong sense of community.  As a competent and driven high school teacher, I can contribute significantly to the community.  Ventura is not everything I would want it to be, but then what ever is?

     I have obviously thought all this out, in the hopes that one can improve one's circumstances through patient planning.  Not five years ago I was an overwhelmed beginning teaching in the ghetto and could hardly have been more miserable.  If I currently enjoy a modicum of happiness, I flatter myself in believing I have earned it.  Why not be happy?  Like Horace in his Epistles I hope to "walk in silence through the healthy woods, pondering questions worthy of the good and wise." (Tacitum sylvas inter reptare salubres, / Curantem quidquid dignum sapiente bonoque est.)  I look to live in Ojai not as a hermit yet with detachment, in a spiritual withdrawal where I can more easily adjust where the outside world ends and my interior life and ease of mind begins.

     It is a new beginning.  I plan to make it work with hard work and patience; having chosen this place, I intend to set down roots and make it "home."  I look around me and could hardly imagine a more beautiful or peaceful corner of the earth in which to build a life. They say it is best to make a home somewhere and invest in it, and only then does one really love the world.  Wish me luck!

"It is a new beginning..."