Our relationship began years ago – in the early 90’s when I made my first trip to the Golden State on business. I landed in San Diego and saw palm trees. California palm trees. I was smitten. It was all so exotic to a girl who had grown up in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
To me, Southern California is the cool kids with the cutest clothes – the ones you hope invite you to their party. SoCal knows it’s cool, too, but it’s very laid back about it all. It’s paradise with a youthful attitude and a side of caramelized brussels sprouts. And not everyone looks the same. It’s alive with energy and bursting with diversity and I absolutely love it.
And California is just too cool to care that folks on the east coast run that “left coast” moniker into the ground. Whatever, dudes.
My sister bears some of the blame for my SoCal lust. She married into California in 1993 – she met her husband when they were both working at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla. He lived in a condo in Del Mar, a small beach city in San Diego County – a condo overlooking the Pacific Ocean. And by overlooking, I mean dangling. It is a breathtakingly dramatic view.I know what you’re thinking but she really did marry for love – not real estate. And she still has the husband – and the condo. He’s retired now and she’s working in Newport Beach so they see each other on weekends. It works for them. Some of my married friends think it’s the perfect scenario.
My sister picked me up at the airport that first visit and I can still remember my head spinning as we drove to Del Mar – the terra-cotta colored mountains in the distance and all those fabulous palm trees. And then she turned onto a steep hill leading straight down to the Pacific Ocean. I felt like we were driving into the ocean.
We had lunch on the patio of an oceanfront (understatement) restaurant. We shared a split of champagne and I was baptized in a mist of bubbles and ocean spray. It was love at first sight. I saved the cork from that bottle for years – somehow even then I knew I needed a talisman for that place and that feeling.
And then we went to her condo. On a clear day you can see, well, not forever, but Catalina for sure. I felt like I was in an episode of Santa Barbara, one of my favorite soap operas back in the day. The sun was shining, as it almost always is, but the air was light and cool. Del Mar had me at cool.
Del Mar will always have me for another reason, too. This is where we scattered my mother’s ashes a year after her death. Mom made Karen Walker from Will & Grace look outdoorsy. She just didn’t really see a compelling reason to be outside unless you were at an outdoor mall. But she loved everything about Del Mar – the climate, the flowers and best of all to her – the absence of any bugs. She always immensely enjoyed her visits to see my sister and her husband and I like to think she’s at peace in that beautiful spot.
I am in many ways my mother’s daughter and I have spent most of my adult life in a climate conundrum, too. You see, I love the ocean but I hate the heat and humidity of summer. In Southern California I have found the best of both worlds – with valet parking.
Last month, I spent two magical weeks with my sister in Newport Beach and since I’ve been home I’ve been suffering from SoCal Syndrome – a condition characterized by a general malaise and a craving for Cioppino and avocado toast. The only thing that seems to help curb the symptoms is a triple, venti, half sweet, non-fat, caramel macchiato and some reruns of The O.C..This has led me to try to trace the roots of my obsession with a place 2,452 miles away from where I live. We have to go back – like the way, way back of my childhood. I can remember being mesmerized by the I Love Lucy episodes when the Ricardos and the Mertzes drove cross-country to California when Ricky got a part in a movie. There’s a great episode where Lucy spots William Holden at the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood and, of course, hijinks ensue.(I’ve waited a long time to use that delightful phrase.) Even in black and white, Southern California looked so glamorous to me and some of that was probably the Hollywood connection. My mother was a practical and frugal woman but she indulged in a few guilty pleasures – like magazines. She subscribed to most of the mom magazines of her generation – Good Housekeeping, Redbook and Ladies’ Home Journal (yes, that’s the Can This Marriage Be Saved? one) but she also got two magazines that I became obsessed with – Modern Screen and Photoplay. Okay kids, gather around the campfire and I’ll tell you about the olden days before People and InStyle.
Modern Screen and Photoplay were fan magazines that featured photographs and interviews with movie stars. Both publications reached their heydays in the 1950’s but were still in circulation until the late 70’s. I could hardly contain myself when they arrived in the mail and I would steal away into my bedroom to pore over the photos of stars in their Malibu homes. Again, it all seemed so intoxicating to a dour teenager with acne and split-ends for days.And I’ve always been drawn to all the TV shows set in Southern California – even if I had aged out of the target audience – Beverly Hills, 90210 (Kelly Taylor was my fav) and Melrose Place (mad crush on Jane Mancini) and then finally, The L Word, a show about my people – impossibly rich, beautiful and thin lesbians who never seem to work and have time to meet for coffee three times a day at The Planet. I loved the scenery – in all manner of ways.
Okay, I know life is not a TV show unless you are a Kardashian or a certain presidential candidate and that the air is always cooler somewhere else. The truth is, I probably couldn’t live in SoCal fulltime for the same reason my sister is always whining about – it’s too damn sunny. My sister, in addition to being a radiation therapist, is also an esthetician and the sun has always been, in her mind, The Evil Empire. She spends more on skin care in a year than I do on wine. That’s a lot of moisturizer, my friends. But she has radiant flawless skin to show for it.That said, she struggles mightily with shielding her undamaged skin from the constant beat down of the California sun. If you happened to run into her on the beach, you might think she was Amish or maybe a beekeeper. That girl covers up.
Mornings are usually pretty safe in Newport Beach because there is often a marine layer that takes a few hours to burn off before the sun is on high. But my sister longs for a rainy day – even just an overcast one – and I understand. She misses the seasons and I know I would, too. Okay, not summer but most certainly fall and spring.I talked to her last night and she was lamenting about how all the grocery stores near her are teeming with pumpkins and gourds and the likes in an attempt to at least give an appearance of fall.
The last morning of my latest visit, I got up early and drove down to Newport Beach Pier. I bought a coffee and walked out far enough to have a great view of the surfers. In my next life, I will surf. I can’t imagine that rush – of riding a wave on a sparkly SoCal morning. It was cool to see so many young women among all the dudes – and very cool to see a lot of not so young dudes out there, too.My dear wife has joked lately to friends that she fears I might leave her for California. She doesn’t have to worry about that – unless I hit that Mega Million Jackpot. Just kidding. I adore my wife but she has lived her entire life in North Carolina and is not a big fan of change. We’ll have to figure it out if we’re ever fortunate enough to retire.
Meanwhile, I’ll just keep watching those KAYAK price alerts and hoping that objects in the mirror really are closer than they appear.