Talk Newspaper: Jeff Golden

This is my 105th column on this page, and the last, at least for a while. Next week I'll launch a new enterprise that doesn't fit with a newspaper column, though it will carry forward much of the conversation we've had here these last two years. I've learned from those, and from an improbable mix of callers in a decade of talk radio microphone.

Here's some of what I've learned.

The answer to "Can't we all get along?" is no, not all of us, at least not right now. It seemed more possible after the wake-up calls of the past twenty months — Wall Street's collapse (or did we just imagine that?), plunging job prospects and retirement accounts alongside soaring foreclosures, and the ripple effects that have shaken all of us one way or another. Maybe, I thought then, the undeniable fact that things have to change would loosen our grip on old certainties and conventional "wisdom." Maybe we'd be more willing to admit that our side didn't have all the answers and reach outside our comfort zones. A bit of that happened.

But more has gone in the other direction: more demonizing those with different viewpoints, more reduction of opposing ideas to silly nonsense, more fear dressed up as ridicule and anger. If you follow national news you've heard and read new levels of viciousness. Some of my columns looked for rays of light in this mess, places where our common needs might trump the fear and suspicion revved up by talk radio and toxic blogs. I'm not sure I found any.

But here's what else I learned: the recent morass of bad listening and bad feeling has been the battleground of national issues, and a few state issues, too (Measures 66/67 come most easily to mind). Something different is playing out in our own community. People are readier to toss away the old swords and listen to what's real in each others' lives — the worries and hopes they have about retirement, the security of their homes, the opportunities their kids will have to make a living, the quality and quantity of local food and water supplies, getting around the valley as growing traffic chokes the roadways. Those issues trigger less adrenaline than do abortion, same-sex marriage, gun regulation and undeclared foreign wars, but for most of us they bear more directly on everyday life and normally don't drive us into ideological corners. What is liberal or conservative thinking on unaffordable college tuition or highway gridlock up near Costco?

Those who packed a Medford auditorium last week to hear ecological libertarian/activist/entertainer/ organic farmer Joel Salatin saw what a community looks like when it's ready to move past old feuds. The row in front of me had dreadlocks next to John Deere ballcaps. Plenty of opportunity to pick fights, but that wasn't what people came for. They came to rally for something they all cared about: growing, selling and buying good healthy food, and cooperating to build a strong local food economy.

That's one acre of common ground where I'll be putting my energy, along with ventures to increase micro-loans and other funding for new local businesses, to bring some sanity to local transportation, and to generate more opportunities for 20- and 30-somethings to build good lives here. This is exactly the right time for a major shift, if we can figure out how to use it.

I've been around here too long to imagine that this will all be easy, that we'll skip off together hand-in-hand into the sunshine of a Brighter Future. But I've also been around here long enough — five years near Gold Hill, five near Butte Falls, and over 25 in Ashland — to know that when you start working with others on what you all care about, you soon start talking. Then pretty soon you're listening, without the old stubborn earwax. Then maybe you hear an idea that you like and add on one of your own. Then somebody thinks of a friend who needs to hear this, and s/he shows up to toss in a missing piece, and then you're off and running towards solutions that people who don't share the same community just aren't finding.

One more thing I've learned: the challenges coming down the road will make us broaden our geographic sense of "community." Ashland is an extraordinary town, with some genuinely creative, dedicated people. But it's just one edge of a Valley that's blessed with the whole mix of resources needed to build a genuinely self-reliant community. To be part of that we'll have to look outside Ashland with more curiosity than we've shown in the past. It's time to recognize that good ideas and passion for a sustainable future also come from people who look, talk and vote differently than most of us. It's time to show some of the flexible, open thinking we keep saying we want to see in others.

Thanks for helping me practice all that through this column for two years. I'll keep practicing in another context. Maybe I'll see you there.

Jeff Golden is the author of Forest Blood, As If We Were Grownups, and the novel Unafraid, with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.