Common Ground

My mom and dad raised me conventionally. We would spend our summers skinny-dipping in the Yuba River and the winters huddled around the warm fireplace, singing protest songs of the ’60s. Accompanied by guitars and harmonicas, the sound would resonate so loudly that even Native American spirits could hear us.

My hometown, Nevada City, has a diverse mix of inhabitants. The aging hippies, who still adorn themselves in Birkenstocks and loose-flowing clothing, are still around. These are the true activists who attended Woodstock and anti-war protests during Vietnam and who were part of the back-to-the-land movement. These hard-core activists tolerate the younger generation of Greens with nose rings, dreads, and babies swathed in soft cotton, hanging like little monkeys from their bodies.

I loved growing up in a beautiful, small town like Nevada City, but I also yearned for a place where no one knew my name, my family history, or my shoe size. I wanted the anonymity of a big city, with plenty of distance and more sunshine.

I’m done with Nevada City! I decided on my 16th birthday. Done. Two years later, after graduating from high school, I packed up my trusty Honda Civic and drove 85 mph toward San Diego.

“I’ve found us a great place,” my boyfriend, also from Nevada City, had told me. He’d found a job in San Clemente a few months prior and had volunteered to secure us a place before my arrival.

My boyfriend was older. He was smart, funny, and very sweet, but the man had zero street smarts. His idea of finding a house was clicking on the first ad he saw on Craigslist and viewing it with the enthusiasm of a four-year-old seeing a new bicycle on Christmas morning.

Instead of living in the posh, serene community of San Clemente, he found us cheaper housing in what he called “The O’Side.”

“It’s dirty here,” I commented on our first day in Oceanside. “There are condoms all over the roads and flower pots are filled with trash.” It was not the sunny, happy San Diego that I had pictured.

“This place is great,” he told me. “There’s a Jiffy Lube across the parking lot and a Ralphs within walking distance.” But it took only a few days before his vision cleared.

The location of our new apartment filled me with dread. In the small, gated complex, steps away from Interstate 5, I unpacked my things. The grey carpet felt dirty on my bare feet, and the broken blinds that covered our sliding door cut off the only source of light in the studio apartment.

The man who lived beside us ordered hookers like pizza, and that, coupled with his habitual drug abuse and middle-of-the-night electric guitar, made life hell.

The atmosphere of downtown Oceanside was no better. Gangs and the military roamed the streets, and though I had craved something diametrically opposed from my hometown, this wasn’t it. Gang shootings and packs of drunk, horny soldiers weren’t all that homey.

The two of us would hide out in our apartment, watching cartoons late into the night, searching for any semblance of innocence that we could find. If we did venture out, it was always down to Ocean Beach, where the streets flowed with bikini-clad girls riding beach cruisers.

Over the next year, I visited places all around San Diego. Though many of them were beautiful, they never felt like home. But it was in O.B. that I finally found my sanctuary.


The laid-back, pot-smoking folk of Nevada County intermingle with retirees who have relocated from the larger surrounding cities. Citizens of San Francisco, Sacramento, and even L.A., have crumbled away from the city to enjoy the lifestyle of a small town.

Directions include phrases like, “Turn right at the rock shaped like a moose, drive past the ridge, and then follow the wildflowers until you see my teepee.” Back home, marijuana and hippies grow wild.

The tree-huggers of Nevada City take their hippieness to the extreme by living off of the land, building treehouses, and snubbing their noses at The Man. (In O.B., there are also people who are obsessed with recycling and who sleep under the night sky — but here, we call them homeless.)

“Silly liberals, paychecks are for workers!” is a bumper sticker seen on many of gun-toting Nevada County Republicans’ SUVs. These deer-hunting folk tend to believe that homosexuality is a disease; they add a certain je ne sais quois to the mixing pot of Nevada City.

“Left is Right” stickers are usually plastered on Volvos, in stark contrast to the conservatives’ jibes. It is an inside joke that Volvo struck a deal with all of the liberals to buy their brand.

At my house, my dad’s sweat lodge was a constant and unwelcome lesson on anatomy. I learned from an early age the affect that gravity has on the aging human body.

During these sweats, my friends and I would climb up the ladder from the basement and gently lift up the trap door that led into the house. This gave an excellent vantage point for the designated scout to peer into the living room and see if the coast was clear.

If no saggy body parts were in sight, the scout would shout, “Go!” We would scramble through the trap door, grab some food, then jump back down the rabbit hole before the sweaters emerged, covered in hay, eagerly awaiting the potluck in the nude.

When I first got my driver’s license, I drove a yellow Toyota pick-up. It was fairly distinctive, resembling a lemon that someone had drop-kicked, stepped on, and left in the dirt. Excited to be in the car all alone, I drove to the local grocery store. I decided to take a shortcut. But as I was driving against the designated arrows of the small parking lot, the keen eye of a fellow shopper followed my every move.

While in the store, my cell phone rang. “Do you know what arrows mean?” my dad sarcastically asked. “I heard you’re driving horrible already. You have been driving for one day. One day, and already I’m getting calls.” After that, city life had never sounded sweeter.

The woman who ran our apartment complex in O.B. looked pale and fragile. She was barely tall enough to ride a roller coaster. She took us on a walking tour around the parking lot, up and down the cement stairs that led to the upper-level apartments. Along the way she greeted tenants.

“Hey, Fred,” she said. “How’s your mother?” What a nice lady, I thought. The image of the frail, old woman was shattered when we entered the parking lot of our building and she cussed out a man parked illegally in the alley.

“Goddamn son of a bitch!” she shouted. “I told you not to park here! Get your ass out of that spot or I’ll have you towed!”

The apartment was no utopia. Cracked, yellow stucco was peeling off the sides of the building, and I found a cockroach in one of my shoes. But outside our bedroom window hung a telephone wire that all the escaped parrots of the world decided to call home. I was often awakened by their squawking, preening, and chatting. If I listened long enough, one would often slip up and say hello. Although the birds were obnoxious, they were a much better alarm than the Oceanside crackheads that perpetually tried to unlatch my sliding glass door at 5:00 a.m.

My boyfriend and I only lasted two months in that apartment. Somewhere along the way, the romance had faded and we became best friends. Sitting on the hood of his car, we hugged and cried. I tearfully waved goodbye as he pulled out of our parking spot and headed home to Nevada City.

I fell in love with Selig by accident. He was a right-wing conservative who didn’t believe in evolution. He represented everything I had been taught my whole life to despise.

“Well, he’s a Republican,” I explained to my mom right after meeting him. “And he’s also Christian.” Her gasp made me feel as if I was dating a terrorist.

“But I think I love him,” I added softly.

I had known Selig for over a year because he had worked with my ex. Our first date consisted of me badgering him to take me on a motorcycle ride. When we rode home in the chilly night and his gloved fingers shielded mine from the cold, I fell fast and hard. Me, the girl who up-chucked at the idea of marriage, was becoming keenly aware that there was something to the notion.

Being with someone whose ideals differed so greatly from my own made me stronger. In explaining to Selig my beliefs on gay marriage, abortion, civil rights, and other hot topics, I took the values I had been raised with and I made them my own. Selig proposed in December 2008, and I am now becoming a part of a family that voted for George W. not once, but twice.

Through our discussions we found a common ground that suited us both. He was not intimidated by the fact that I am an opinionated liberal. Through our differences he has taught me to be more unprejudiced. A Republican teaching a Democrat to be more tolerant? My mother would die.

On a spectrum of opposites, Selig and I look mild when compared to the extremes of our families. My parents have never been married, and until recently could not be in the same room together. Selig’s parents have been happily married for 34 years and still give each other piggyback rides.

My mom had her first pedicure last year, doesn’t believe in makeup, and takes nature walks to feel a closer connection with the trees and fairies. Selig’s mom is an exuberant volunteer for Red Cross who looks too young to have three grown children and is a walking advertisement for J. Crew. My dad is a lawyer whose specialties include divorce and defending pot-heads. Selig’s father is a corporate accountant.

My parents give thanks to Mother Earth, while Selig’s pray to God. And while all four of them are kind, sweet people, we had our doubts about how they would mesh.

I awoke the weekend of our wedding reception pondering what I would find when I went down stairs. My family had flown out from Nevada City, and we were all staying at the in-laws’ house in Washington State. I heard laughter echoing from the kitchen and entered to find the conversation changing from the history of my hometown to the time my mother was arrested.

“You see,” she began, setting the stage for her story, “it was at the beginning of the Iraq War, and we were gathering in the streets in a peaceful protest.”

I stood, grasping the rail at the edge of kitchen, trying to decide if I should run back upstairs and hide my head deep beneath the covers, or if I should brave the family fiasco.

The story continued, and in a partnership forged on shared protest experience, my parents collaborated in explaining how my mother sat in the street and refused to move, even when the police chief told them, “You’ve made your point, folks. Let’s move it on out. We don’t want to arrest you.” I glanced to my right and saw the O-shaped mouths of my newly acquired in-laws.

“The best part,” my dad added with a chuckle, “is that Utah was there!”

Utah Phillips was a renowned musician and had been a peace activist for decades. Utah, along with my parents, had experienced more powerful protests than the one that they’d attended on the streets of Nevada City.

“And Utah sits there,” my dad said. “This old, bearded man, and he shouts at the police, ‘Hey, what’s a guy gotta do to get arrested around here?’ ”

My mom and dad erupted in a fit of laughter, and without making eye contact, I resigned myself to giggling. I had just recently come to the conclusion that my parents weren’t just nuts — they were intriguing. The older that I get, the more that I realize that what embarrassed me most as a child is what makes me love them more as an adult.

I have realized that the dynamics of my family and that of Nevada City have engraved in me a love of diversity. I love that my husband’s family is so different from my own, and though it may lead to some awkward moments, it is always a spark for conversations.

I like living in a world where extremes encounter each other every day. I was raised to think freely and to be different. So being the progressive, free spirit of Selig’s family isn’t a bad thing to me — it’s a challenge. And besides, I am nothing compared to my parents.

I may eventually outgrow Ocean Beach. The loud, dirty streets may not always comfort me, and the road less traveled may call my name. But what I discovered in moving to San Diego is this: though the small town girl in me needs adventure and new beginnings, I look for pieces of Nevada City wherever I go.

The place where I have landed is a small community at the water’s edge that nurtures hippies young and old. The sound of the river has been replaced by that of the ocean; the smiles and waves of those I grew up with have been traded for those of new friends, and some local homeless people. But when I’m sitting in traffic to get into Ocean Beach, with the wind blowing my hair and the putrid smell of the bay cleansing my nostrils, I know I am home.
Chelsey Tobiason

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Hilarious! Having come from a small town in Ohio, I can totally relate! Great story!

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