I spent Presidents’ Day weekend in Southern California, and I returned to Washington on Monday evening as confused as ever about that state — not just the physical Golden State, but the mental state as well: the California state of mind.
I guess I’d explain it this way: If they’re right, does that mean we’re wrong? If nirvana is living in eternal sunshine and supping on fresh oranges and avocados plucked from backyard trees, shouldn’t we all be putting our houses on the market and moving to SoCal?
My Lovely Wife and I were visiting my best friend, Pat, and his wife, Anne. Until recently Pat and Anne had lived their entire lives — more than 100 years, combined — in the Washington area. Pat spent the requisite two hours a day commuting: 30 minutes to get to work in Tysons in the morning from Silver Spring, a maddening hour and 30 minutes to get home in the evening. Anne mastered the challenges of gardening in Zone 6. They are hard-core Easterners and native Washingtonians.
Then, a year ago, Pat took a new job in Los Angeles. At least, I think it’s Los Angeles. Is Anaheim in Los Angeles? They live in a town called Orange. Is that in Los Angeles? When there are mountains all around you, which valley is the Valley?
And why does every numbered highway — excuse me, freeway — have “the” in front of it: the 5, the 405, the 22?
But those quirks are relatively inconsequential. I was worried about how my friends would adapt physically and mentally to living in La-La Land. I’ve always been dismissive of the place. How can you live in a land without seasons? Is it healthy for the human body to exist without regular doses of 100-degree temperatures with 90 percent humidity and 30-degree temperatures with wintry mix?
And what passes for culture out there? Television? The Kardashians?
That’s what was on my mind, anyway, as we deplaned Friday morning at LAX, our winter clothes suddenly superfluous. My wife and I had lunch in Hermosa Beach, where most of the people seemed to ride their bikes to the Pacific, a surfboard clutched under an arm. When they tired of surfing, they played volleyball.
I kept thinking, What do these people do ? How can they just be . . . at the beach?
As we drove through California, we passed an inordinate number of massage establishments, not sketchy prostitute-filled ones, but legitimate places that seemed to illustrate a heretofore unknown part of the Constitution entitling every American to be kneaded and prodded into a state of relaxed bliss.
But was this country built on relaxation or was it built on tension? Sure, California is nice, but where does it say that life is supposed to be nice? Where would we be if the Puritans had gone surfing?
Pat and Anne’s life sure is nice. They found the local NPR station and the farmers market. They have a lemon tree and an orange tree in their yard. Neighbors leave bags of excess fruit on their porch. Pat squeezes fresh OJ every day. They have truly eaten of the lotus.
L.A. has awful traffic, but Pat has a reverse commute so he’s in his office in less than 30 minutes. The job itself is less stressful than his old one, too. In Washington, he said, it isn’t enough just to have a good idea. You have to insist that everyone else’s idea is bad. He doesn’t find that kind of Machiavellian intrigue in California, that petty back-stabbing. Then again, he doesn’t work in the movies.
I know that my 72-hour sojourn in Southern California can give me only an incomplete picture. I know it isn’t all sunshine and lollipops out there, even if the sun was always shining and at least one retailer I visited was giving out lollipops. They have poverty and crazy homeless people, too, even if the crazy homeless people are world-class concert violinists.
L.A.? D.C.? I’m torn. I’ve always believed that suffering — not surfing — is good for the soul. But SoCal seemed pretty sweet. On the other hand, I don’t know if I could live in a place where men don’t wear suits to work, where men don’t wear socks to work.
I guess I might feel better if an earthquake reduced everything out there to rubble. Then I’d know.
Our trip got me thinking about how Washington compares with other places. We’re not the city of transplants everyone thinks we are, but we have plenty of out-of-towners. If you’ve lived other places — whether SoCal, NoCal, the Deep South, the Midwest, Down East Maine, American Samoa, wherever, and been struck by the difference with Washington, share your observations:
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.