Peter Laufer: Don’t tell me not to Californicate Oregon: A question of pedigree

Maybe my family didn’t brave the 19th century Oregon Trail but we bushwacked our own paths to Oregon.

Peter Laufer is the University of Oregon James Wallace Chair Professor in Journalism and author of The Elusive State of Jefferson: A Journey through the 51st State.

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Where are we from?

Where do we belong?

What does it matter?

There is nothing wrong with pride of place. Kevin Frazier lovingly calls this periodical “The Oregon Way.”  And he goes out of his way to explain what that means – to him and to his correspondents. But questions of place and pedigree are – and should be – a matter of personal interpretation. The Bundy Oregon, I suggest, is as far (further!?) from the Kesey Oregon as we might be able to imagine.

I am an Oregonian. I moved up here a decade ago to accept a professorship at the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!). Note the construction – those of us who came from California tend to use it: I moved up here suggests away from California. It suggests – at least to me – away from a home. Away from a home and to where? This other place, this new-to-me part of Oregon.

When I moved up here (I just typed the “up” again, automatically!) among the routine errands I attended to was the obligatory trip to the DMV. “California, eh?” the clerk – looking at the license I was turning in – said with a tone I interpreted as rejectionist to a lesser being. “Yup,” I naively responded, adding a casual, “Where are you from?” I was then regaled with what I remember as a rather pompous recitation of her family history back to Conestoga Wagons and the famed Oregon Trail.

I went home (the new Eugene home!) and told my wife I wanted to get customized Oregon license plates for the old Volvo that read: “I [heart] Cali.” Sheila – wise as always – recommended against it. The busted windows and keyed paint job would not have been worth the statement.

But I do love California. And both California and Oregon are my homes. Maybe my family didn’t brave the 19th century Oregon Trail but we bushwacked our own paths to Oregon. My parents moved to Ashland (from California!) about the same time Governor Tom McCall (UO J-school grad – Go Ducks!) famously told CBS, “Come visit us again and again. But for heaven’s sake, don’t come here to live.” Sheila did. She moved to Wolf Creek despite the billboard she remembers passing on I-5 that yelled the tired old slogan, “Don’t Californicate.”

So here we Californians are. Get used to it.

And where are you from, my DMV-Conestoga Wagon friend?

What did the Kalapuya think of your ancestors arriving here from Missouri?

Just how Oregonian are you in that context?

And what exactly are we so chauvinistic about here in Oregon, so exclusionary about?

There’s a swell line about Oregon in the film “To Catch a Thief.” Who would think that a movie starring Grace Kelley and Cary Grant, a picture shot on the French Riviera, would speak to Oregonian exceptionalism?

The Cary Grant character is looking at something in a swank hotel gift shop. He plays a timberman from our great state. He checks out the item in the shop and says to the clerk, “It’s better than anything we have in Oregon.” The mother of his love interest Grace Kelly fires back, “Most everything is!”

We should consider our faults (racist history, high school graduation rates, Covid vaccine rollout – to cite just three) before we shun immigrants – from California, from Ukraine, from Mexico.

Why should we believe ourselves from just one place in this globalized world? I lived for a couple of years in Berlin and consider it my zweite Heimat. I’m a Californian and an Oregonian. Und ich bin Berliner. When I worked as an NBC News correspondent, I was assigned to the network's Washington bureau. I'm from DC. It was my home for almost a decade. But I must confess I kept my California license plates on the car back in our nation's capital – I embraced my otherness in that city of transients.

I was born in Rochester, New York. I lived there for two months before my family moved. I am a New Yorker! My father came to America from Budapest. I consider myself Hungarian. I love Bartok and Hungarian “gypsy” music, poppyseed cakes and the Buda hills. To paraphrase John Wayne, “You gotta problem with that, Pilgrim?” Or perhaps better said is the relatively popular T-shirt with the picture of native Americans cradling rifles – a photograph that looks like a Curtis image from the turn of the 19th century – and the legend: “Homeland Security – Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.”

Get used it to. This Californian is an Oregonian. I’ve learned how to say “spendy” and “sun breaks.” I love riding my bike along the meandering Willamette trails through Eugene and Springfield. I learned about our both romantic and sordid history when I was researching my book The Elusive State of Jefferson. I am a Duck. And I love going home to California. Especially in the middle of another bleak Oregon winter.   

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