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Gaining Perspective : Looking Into the Future With an Eye on the Past

January 06, 1994|T. Jefferson Parker | T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month

When Christmas, New Year's Day and a 40th birthday all conspire to fall roughly within the same week, one feels a natural inclination to take stock.

Where to begin? Past and future exert equal tugs, like horses yoked to the same cart but pulling in opposite directions. The present seems either preface or postscript, as the present often does.

One recent sere winter morning I hiked back into the hills of Laguna Canyon on a journey through the past and into the future, I hoped.

Looking down on the acres scorched by fire, the wind hurling dust into my face, it was tempting to consider the fire as a dividing event, splitting county life into pre and post, a concept that, a few short years from now, probably won't mean squat.

For a long view of things, one must avoid the handy.

Down below, not far from my house, onto a green level patch of earth, a large bobcat wandered, reconnoitered, sat. The black tufts of his ears bent with the wind. Without factual correlation, I decided this was a young cat, still unfamiliar with the dangers of public relaxation. He faced the wind; then faced away. He watched the sparrows in the scrub oak beside him. He licked his paw like a house cat.

Turning from landscape to inscape, looking back on four decades of life--all of them spent here in Orange County--my immediate impulse was to grouse about what's been lost.

Example: Where my father and I once hunted dove in the thick emerald miles of citrus off of I-5, now sits a mundane bit of 20th-Century civilization with an In-and-Out Burger as its greatest point of interest.

Example: Where once you could pull up plenty of good lobster off the coast in South Laguna and eat it, now you can pull quite a bit less of them, and risk illness and infection--from the human feces in the water, not the lobster--just to get them to the kitchen pot.

(Cynics will solve the obvious algebra of these two examples and come up with "then eat at In-and-Out Burger" as the answer.)

Example: Upon a front car seat similar to the one on which my high school sweetheart and I explored many years ago the commonplace raptures of making-out, a 17-year-old innocent in San Clemente was recently shot to death, allegedly by a kid playing with a gun. Three short decades ago guns were still sold in this county at Sears, Monkey Ward's and hardware and auto parts stores by the score, but people were not shooting each other with them. Now guns are a fad in Orange County--not just having them, but using them. Only the dimmest observer could see this as a retail problem, rather than a spiritual one.

The bobcat finished his quick bath, stretched, then lay in the grass. A pair of binoculars allowed me to note the drowsy slits of his eyes, the relaxing ears, the slowing twitch of his tail. I named him Rick.

Rick's neck fur thickened as his head sank further down onto his shoulders. He flexed his paws once. He yawned.

Here, of middle age, my greatest fear is to become nostalgic.

I hate nostalgia. I hate the belief that things used to be better, even if they were. Standing on the hillside I made still another New Year's resolution: I will not look back with a fonder eye than I use to look forward.

I scratched my head at this sweeping promise, comforted by about a .126 batting average when it comes keeping New Year's resolutions. The cornball thought came to mind that I would remain young in spirit, come hell or high water, both of which--in the forms of fire and flood--have in fact come already.

The flip side to this is dreadful.

Few sights in life are more disheartening than a desperate clinging to youth by the old. Fiftysomething players (of either sex) with 20-year-olds on their weight-room-pumped arms, and the tucked and tightened patients of the cosmetic surgeon seem proof of the same truism: You can't go home again, but maybe you can lease a place just like it. Only, rent can get high in that neighborhood.

Achieving the crest of the hill, I looked down to where the ocean meets the land. The wind had eased considerably, and the dust had settled, leaving the sky a wispy blue-white and the sea a deep and troubling blue. Already, valiant shoots of grass had shaded the black hillsides in green.

I took a deep breath and let the smell of sage and winter enter my lungs and, for a moment, imagined what my father had seen when he first moved here in the '50s: space, sky, opportunity, central heating.

I will not covet the past, I vowed again. I will embrace the future without joining the Church of Eternal Youth. I will grow into the years and let the years grow around me.

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