A Trip South

Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischA Trip South

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Back in the days, I did considerable traveling around the country to talk or teach or read from a new book. Only once did I get hooked into a regular book tour, the if it’s Tuesday this must be Connecticut thing. After a couple of weeks of that, and after sitting in a plane on the runway at the Denver airport watching them de-ice the plane for the third time before we took off into a white-out blizzard, as we climbed (just barely) over the Rockies, I was able only to resolve never to do a book tour again.

The worst thing about it was that I’d realised I was obsessing about whether and when I could have a drink before I went on stage. I’ve “used alcohol,” as the medical questionnaires weirdly phrase it, ever since I was in college, but I’d never before (or since) felt that alcohol was beginning to use me. Nicotine had had me cornered for years, and I didn’t want another addiction. It scared me. When I got home I was so strung out that Charles looked me over and said, “I’m going to take you over to the beach for three days by yourself,” and he did.

He put me in a nice little run-down motel, kitchenette and geraniums, two blocks from the ocean. I didn’t speak to anybody but the grocery store clerk for three days. I spent them walking or sitting on the beach. In the evening I’d wander back to my room and sit down with a shot of bourbon to call Charles before I made dinner. Dr Le Guin’s Pacific Therapy worked. It wasn’t too long after that that we bought a house, a few blocks from that motel, so we could both do beach retreats, jointly or in solitude — with a kitchen that had more than two saucepans, one lid, no teapot, and those damn serrated motel knives that won’t cut butter.

For a long time plane travel was no problem for me physically, and although I always hated airports, I did enjoy flying. It can be amazingly beautiful, and sometimes a real high. I got more than one story idea at 30,000 feet. (One was the germ of Changing Planes.) But as deregulation progressed, and security became a big deal, and the airlines took to processing passengers as insentient objects, airports became suburbs of hell. And the bag of peanuts on the plane deteriorated into five intensely saline plaster pretzels and a granite corn nut, and then into nothing at all. And I was getting lame, and old, and then really old, and the prospect of getting through airports and plane changes and delays made me more and more anxious, until I saw I couldn’t do it alone. So now I fly only very seldom, and as a sheep, guided by an endlessly resourceful and kindly shepherd, my son.

Thus I arrived, bleating softly, in Los Angeles airport last Saturday night.

I feel like writing a blog about the trip, because I never have done that, and because I have a fairly strong feeling that I may not fly anywhere to do a gig again. No, I am not saying never. I learned long ago never to say never, or anyhow hardly ever. And I hardly ever say last, ever since I published The Last Book of Earthsea and then discovered it was the fourth book of six. Never and last are closing words. Having spent a good deal of my life trying to open closed doors and windows, I have no intention of going around slamming them shut now, just because I’m 86.

As I see it, getting old gives me the opportunity to go through another door, into another place.

Old age is quite a different place from what people who don’t live there think it is or say it is or want it to be. Here, what you want doesn’t count as much as it used to. Energy, stamina, memory, any of them may suddenly fail and let you down — not because you let it happen, but because you can’t prevent it. Where there’s a will, here, there isn’t always a way. Doors do shut; windows close. No hype, no vanity or pretense, no resolution can keep them open. In fact, I wonder if a continuous strenuous effort to keep them open may prevent the compensatory thinning of the fabric of the everyday, the weakening of all walls and barriers, that increasingly admits shadows, gleams, intimations, glimpses of a larger habitation, a vaster landscape even than that of the world seen from 30,000 feet.

So anyhow, I made one strenuous effort. I flew to L.A. to do a gig — I’m sorry, an Event — at the Center for the Art of Performance series in Royce Hall on the UCLA campus on Sunday afternoon. I took it on partly because it paid very well and thus provided me a (completely unnecessary) excuse to go on to Santa Ana to see my daughter in the house she bought there two years ago. I very much wanted to see her in it, so that I could imagine her where she is whenever I think of her. It is hard to have children where you can’t imagine them.

Also, the person who was to talk with me on stage was Meryl Friedman, who now teaches at UCLA, but who, years ago, in her wild youth, produced the first stage play of my Left Hand of Darkness. I always regretted that I wasn’t able to go to Chicago to see it. Reviews of the play and reports by people who saw it were very impressive. When I had the pleasure of being in on the production of Left Hand here in Portland two years ago by Hand2Mouth and Portland Playhouse Theaters, I knew better than ever what I’d missed in Chicago. Stage magic is just about the purest magic I know. So I wanted, at least, and at long last, to meet Meryl. It was a happy meeting.


UKL and Meryl Friedman in the green room

Meryl Friedman and UKL in the green room


Meryl and me on stage

Meryl and me on stage


The Diva, at her first ever back stage dressing room with her name on the door

The Diva, at her first ever back stage dressing room with her name on the door


Afterwards, Theo and I met Charles Solomon and Scott Johnston at a fish house for dinner. I don’t remember how Chas (as I will call him to distinguish Charleses) and I became email-pen-pals — was it something to do with Miyazaki? or with cats? We share cat stories shamelessly. I tell him about Pard, he tells me about Nova, Matter, and Typo. Typo makes himself into a black fur scarf around Chas’s neck and goes to sleep there. I wish he could have worn Typo to the restaurant. Over the past few years, Chas has given me a master class in the criticism and appreciation of animated film, and patiently endures my ignorant grumblings about why does everybody have to look like inflated plastic toys, etc. As a critic, he can be a master grumbler himself, but he grumbles from knowledge. Meanwhile, Scott does the real thing, practices the art. I don’t know how often a top artist and a top critic can make a happy marriage, but it’s a great thing when it happens. The picture, taken by Scott, is me and Charles — both obviously full of fish and purring.


Meryl and me on stage

UKL and Charles Solomon

Photo by Scott Johnston


Next morning we rather gratefully left the hotel. It was perfectly OK, but why do hotels think you want to enter a cavernously dark lobby with a gas fire burning in a glass hearth on a brilliant day in Southern California, or eat breakfast in windowless gloom to the unmeaning thump and whimper of muzak, while palm trees clash and glitter outside in the sunlight? I’m just glad the muzak wasn’t yet playing “White Christmas” and “Let it Snow.” Anyhow, we got out into the bright air under a radiant blue sky and drove on The 405 (every highway in L.A. must have its article) down into Orange County.

Santa Ana isn’t a mess of cognitive dissonances plunked down in a desert, like Riverside. It’s a solid old town with a history. Like Sacramento, Monterey, Petaluma, it’s been there for a while, with good reasons to be there — a county seat with federal offices, for years the market center of a great orchard and farming area, a long-established settlement of Americans originally from the south, chiefly Mexico.

Elisabeth’s house is in a largely Spanish-speaking neighborhood built mostly just after the second world war. The push now is to upscale and gentrify, that is, to push out the people who’ve lived and worked and paid taxes there for sixty years or more, bulldoze the one-story houses, scrape away the lots full of tricycles and persimmon trees and old California sycamores, and erect the sterile megamansions of Money with their locked doors and unopenable windows. Can we do nothing to prevent these hordes of the filthy rich from overrunning our country and dispossessing our people, to stem this ever-growing White Plague of freeloaders who let us pay their taxes while they send our jobs to China and our kids to Afghanistan? — Oh, it’s so easy to rant with so many examples of ranting to be heard, and so easy to turn bigotry upon itself! Anyhow, I hope the City of Santa Ana comes to its senses and saves its pleasant neighborhoods.

We met the other inhabitants of the house. Here they are: Terri; Chimul in his cat-bed; Opal (with whom I bonded when she was still a kitten); and on my lap, in his new holiday sweater, Ugo, a long-term visitor.

Terri, Chimul, Opal, UKL, Ugo

Terri, Chimul, Opal, UKL, Ugo


Terri calls Chimul the Punk, and there is some truth in it, but he’s very pretty. Both cats outweigh little Ugo, but they all get on; and Ugo is a dear, and a brave watchdog. After we had enjoyed touring the house we went round the garden, where we deeply admired the clothesline and the compost pit, and deeply envied the lemon and orange and persimmon trees.


Agave or Century Plant, used as Clothesline

Agave or Century Plant, used as Clothesline


Meyer Lemon, just getting its growth

Meyer Lemon, just getting its growth





Elisabeth made us a grand lunch of fish and vegetables which we ate outside in the sunshine at the table beside the pretty solar, a shady-sunny patio enclosed with lattice and half-roofed, with a most inviting hammock.

At table

At table

Hammock, with Occupant

Hammock, with Occupant


It was quite windy, with the palms sounding like sea-waves, and not very warm, except in the sun — a north-wind day. I didn’t grow up in Southern California, never even saw it till I was over thirty, but California is itself and nowhere else from top to bottom, from Sierra to sea. When I’m there, almost anywhere there, deep in me a contented voice says: Yes. Right. Some people have an Inner Child. I have an Inner Californian.

We drove downtown to see the Centro Cultural de México, the community center that first drew my daughter to Santa Ana in pursuit of the son jarocho music of Vera Cruz, and which has become an important element of her life. But all too soon it was time to leave for the airport.

John Wayne Airport. I didn’t say I like everything about California, you know.

After we got there we discovered that the two-hour six-o’clock flight to Portland was two hours late. Altogether we spent three hours in John Wayne Airport. Not too bad. Theo belongs to airline clubs where you can sit peacefully and have a drink, and the restaurant was really OK. But it was getting pretty close to closing time. John Wayne Airport shuts right down at ten p.m., because the people in the megamansions in the luxury burbs and Huntington Beach object to having plebeian airplanes fly over them when they want to sleep. Honestly. This is true. And not only that: all day long, so as not to disturb the filthy rich, the planes have to gain altitude fast by taking off very steeply.

By then I was quite willing to take off very steeply.

We flew against headwinds all the way north, missed our landing the first try, circled back, and bumped down in blinding rain and gusty wind about midnight. Dear, wet Portland, hello! I am happy to be home.



A Trip South — 12 Comments

  1. What does one do who is inhabited by several inner selves? I’ve got the Atlantic Coast, both the South and, to a somewhat lesser degree, New England, which is compromised by living in between, and lots of travel up and down. Also there’s the inner Spaniard and Brit (all the sections, sigh).

  2. I wish I’d known you were here! SoCal is a state of mind as much as anything else. I’ve always had an Inner Californian and finally heeded the call of sea and sunshine. But the plague of McMansions is everywhere I’ve ever traveled. Maybe we need to bring back the window tax.

  3. Lovely travelogue. Aging is an interesting process. (‘Interesting’ is what Minnesotans say when they don’t like something, but are too polite to say so.) I’m glad to read about it, because I am not able to avoid it, in spite of all my efforts. There isn’t enough about old age in SFF. But mostly, this is a lovely travelogue. And airports have indeed become awful.

  4. A clothesline!
    In Adelaide sheets and pillowcases dry in 10 minutes, and the shirts in 20, hidden in the almond trees so the sun wouldn’t rot the fabric.
    L.A. the same. No almond trees, only the shower rail and the open bathroom window.
    In PDX the shirts hung in the backyard pines returned 8 hours later as wet and dripping as when they went out; they cycle through the dryer now and decorate the bathrooms overnight and sometimes through the next day (the 4-fold thickness of a t-shirt seam).

  5. Thank you so much for coming to visit us in SoCal! I was at your UCLA talk with shining eyes in the third row, and was crowing all week about seeing one of my heroes in person.

  6. “…the compensatory thinning of the fabric of the everyday, the weakening of all walls and barriers, that increasingly admits shadows, gleams, intimations, glimpses of a larger habitation, a vaster landscape …”

    I suspect the time comes when no effort or intention will prevent this. The trick is to remain alert to the cycles of thickening and thinning of the fabric of the everyday, like a ball bouncing on hard pavement. I’ve seen it done, but at 69 I am too young to do it myself – to continue the analogy, I am still dribbling the ball down the court. When the ball bounces free of my hands, each bounce rising lower than the last, then is the time to remember the Going Westward to the Sunrise songs.

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