To the lighthouse, Mrs. Woolf (and pay as you go)

This afternoon, while shuffling idly through the File of Unfinished and Rejected Posts — it’s true, not everything we write ends up in virtual print — we found this piece from last August, initially rejected on the grounds that maybe it was a little off-topic and too much of a downer. But in light of our continuing national baring of the teeth and difficulties in coming up with a simple, rational health-care plan, let alone any apparent impulse to talk civilly and sanely with one another across the artificial divide of our go-for-the-jugular political discourse, we’re publishing it now. After all, arts and culture can’t exist without an honest sense of shared responsibility and experience, and that is what this seaside idyll is about. Read on, and argue with it if you wish.

Yaquina Head Lighthouse, Newport, Oregon. Photo: Rebecca Kennison, 2005, Wikimedia Commons

Newport, Oregon, has two lighthouses. The original, on the south side of town and decommissioned for most of its 138 years, has been turned into an agreeably nostalgic tourist lure complete with resident ghost story. The larger and younger lighthouse (by two years) has been working continuously since the day it was completed. This light, its beacon visible for miles out to sea, stands 93 feet tall on a narrow peninsula at the city’s northern edge.

While it’s not precisely true that once you’ve seen one lovelorn ghost you’ve see ’em all — the tales of tragic circumstance and details of costume have their specificities — it IS true that once you’ve toured a particular location of purported ectoplasmic activity you can go a good long time before repeating the experience. (I make an exception for re-readings of James Thurber‘s story The Night the Ghost Got In, which should be frequent and preferably aloud, to an intimate audience.)

So while I enjoy outside glimpses of the southside Yaquina Bay Lighthouse (active from 1871 to 1874, brought to light again in 1996, haunted since the city’s promoters realized the commercial possibilities) I haven’t taken the tour in several years.

It’s been a while since I’ve visited the north side lighthouse, too (although I can see it as I’m writing this from the sands of Nye Beach), but for different reasons.

I’ve always liked this lighthouse — it’s called simply the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, for the rock on which it stands — and for many years I made a point of calling on it whenever I was in the vicinity. A twisty, usually lonely drive west from U.S. 101, past the concave of an old rock quarry, to the spare grounds around the tower. Not too many tourists. Not much of anybody; the few besides me mostly people who had actual work to do. On almost any day the wind was stiff, and on stormy days it was enough to almost knock you down. I like standing against that kind of force, feeling the swift air push against my chest and ripple in unseen waves around me. It’s challenging yet also somehow calming. It re-sets my rhythm to the rhythm around me.

Somewhere along the line I stopped visiting.

Partly it was because Mrs. Scatter, who can stay happily on a lonely beach for hours, investigating the tidepools and gathering flotsam and jetsam, is not so much a fan of shivering in the wind. Partly it was because the experience, once casual, became regulated. The lighthouse is now the core attraction of the Yaquina Head Natural Area, operated by the U.S.Bureau of Land Management, with posted hours and a wooden booth near the foot of the road where you pay to enter the domain. One year I bought an annual pass, for twenty or twenty-five dollars; a little steep but I was willing to chip in for the upkeep of a place I enjoyed. The next time I showed up, in a different car, I was told my pass was no good: My license plate was different, and the pass was assigned to a specific vehicle, not to the person who bought the pass. So the lighthouse drifted out of my routine.

Today, though, I decided I wanted to share the experience with my 11-year-old son. I pulled off the highway and drove toward the wooden booth, figuring the visit might cost $3.50 or four dollars. I looked at the sign: Single vehicle, seven dollars. By this point I was almost to the window, where a tousled, pleasant-looking young man in BLM uniform was waiting to take my toll.

“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I didn’t realize it was seven dollars to go in. I can’t pay that. I’m going to turn around.”

He didn’t act surprised or offended; he was friendly and polite. I had the sense he was used to hearing it.

In fact, I could have paid the seven dollars. My son and I had just paid that much, including tip, for a fruit smoothie and a cup of coffee. And, no, we probably wouldn’t have stayed more than 20 minutes, which makes for a pretty stiff hourly rate, but that wasn’t the point.

Because I was thinking about driving through the Willamette Valley town of McMinnville a few days earlier and stumbling across a mass of protesters gathered to bully a town hall meeting scheduled for that evening to hear talk about President Obama’s proposed national health care system. Astroturfers, these people are being called, and it’s a good name — fake grassroots, bused in from God’s Little Acre of Ideological Hysteria and spreading like weeds. This was about the time the astonishing Sarah Palin was whipping up mass frenzy against a rational and innocuous detail added to the health bill by U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer to allow older people periodic voluntary consultations with their doctors to talk about end-of-life care and decisions.

“Death Panel!” Palin roared to Fox News and the New York Times alike, which duly passed her rantings along. The Evil Socialists will force helpless old people into a Democratic version of the gas chamber! She got what she wanted: more mud smeared over the Obama plan, more fears spread among the frightened masses, and the bonus that a typically cynical or invertebrate Congress effectively pulled the plug on the Blumenauer proposal.

It was lies, of course. Damned lies, if not statistics — but lies in the long and inglorious pattern of the departed-but-not-gone Bush Administration, which lied the nation into a disastrous war, robbed us into a near economic depression, and spirited away a frightening amount of citizen privacy and civil rights, mostly with the acquiescence of a meek and cowed Democratic Party, which pretended that it didn’t know what was going on. (And, I regret to add, with the complicity of a complaisant mainstream press that dared not speak a discouraging or even questioning word for fear of landing in the path of the pseudo-patriotic juggernaut that rolled over the land following the attacks of September 11, 2001.)

“It’s deliberate at this point,” Blumenauer said of Palin’s politically hyperventilated mendacities. “If she wasn’t deliberately lying at the beginning, she is deliberately allowing a terrible falsehood to be spread with her name.”

Well, yes. It was, and she did. And why should Blumenauer or anyone else be surprised? This is the way of the reckless right wing. Lie long, lie loud, recruit a distortion of God to your side, rob Peter and Paul to pay the plutocrats, and scare the hell out of people so they’ll vote against common sense and their own best interests.

Oh: And rip up the social compact, that outmoded and unAmerican idea that there is a public good that might in certain circumstances outweigh the God-given right of private business to own, develop, mark up and sell at a high profit any and everything up to and including, if possible, the thoughts you think. There is no common good. There is no commons. You want to see a lighthouse? Pay up, Mrs. Woolf.

Which is why I turned my car around. I don’t blame the Bureau of Land Management for putting a fee on visits to public property it administers. What else can it do, given its budget and the country’s unwillingness to pay for upkeep of its public infrastructure? After all, it is charged with maintaining, for the public good, a working lighthouse, a sentinel against disaster, a beacon of warning and comfort to ships at sea.

I certainly don’t blame the Friends of Yaquina Lighthouses, a praiseworthy private group devoted to restoring and maintaining the two Newport lights.

Yet I wonder, from somewhere beneath the din of our self-serving political posturing: Do any of our decision-makers know the difference anymore between a light that performs a vital service and a light that simply perpetuates an attractive, ghostly myth? As we struggle through this tunnel of relentless erosion and fear-mongering in our public life: Is there no lighthouse at the end?


PICTURED: Yaquina Head Lighthouse, Newport, Oregon. Photo: Rebecca Kennison, 2005. Wikimedia Commons