By Allison Winn Scotch
February 19th, 2013
The following post by Allison Winn Scotch (@aswinn) is part of our online companion to our Winter 2013 issue on Classic Hollywood. Click here for an overview of the issue, and be sure to read Mickey Rapkin’s Leaving Los Angeles.
There’s a moment of hesitation when you tell New Yorkers that you are moving to Los Angeles. A microscopic pause, a sharp inhale, a raising of the brows, just before they inevitably say, with a blend of shock, disgust (perhaps?) and envy (maybe?), “That’s amazing! Wow! California!” As if you’ve announced that you’re moving to the moon.
And not just California but Los Angeles. By choice. My husband and I packed up our two kids and our one dog and our lots and lots and lots of acquired crap, and took the leap this past summer. And when we did, we could sense the heady blend of confusion and pity and yes, jealousy, from nearly all of our friends. But leap we did.
(It does feel necessary here to say that I have many friends who adore the city and will happily raise families there. All of what I say next has to do with the fact that New York City wasn’t for us. It’s not a judgment of those who love it.)
Like all New Yorkers who consider their great escape, we wrestled with our decision for years. We’d talked about it exhaustively with friends; we scoped out dream houses online. No one, ourselves included, ever really thought we’d go through with it. After all, we’d lived in the city for nearly two decades, and it’s awfully hard to get off the pot when inertia is so much easier. So we adjusted to the frigid winters; we ignored the spotty garbage collection; we grew used to irritated pedestrians, irritated subway riders, irritated grocery shoppers, and the fact that we became irritated ourselves; and we waded through the kill-or-be-killed preschool process. (And let’s not even get into the kindergarten situation.) Our dog was happy because there were always scraps of bagels or chicken wings or pizza crusts to be found on the sidewalk, and our kids were mostly happy because it’s not like they knew any better.
But my husband, who is from New Hampshire, and I, who grew up in Seattle, did. We knew better. We knew that the frantic pace of the city wasn’t the norm; that tutoring your four-year-old for a kindergarten entrance exam was nuts (we didn’t—many others did); that the steep expense of city living was ridiculous; and that having a yard and wanting a little breathing room from your neighbors didn’t seem like too much to ask. We just couldn’t figure out what to do about it.
Then our son started growing up and developed an interest, as boys do, in sports. We were lucky enough to have a sliver of outdoor space (a twelve-by-twelve wooden deck that was ensconced by towering apartment buildings), but it was a poor substitute for a yard. We put up a soccer goal and basketball net, but he liked to cheer and shout and applaud his various shots and dunks and scores, so I was constantly chiding him to “BE QUIET” out of fear that he’d disturb a neighbor who might crack open a window and unleash a string of profanities. During one particularly long summer heat wave, we trekked to Duane Reade and bought a kiddie pool, but by the end of the day, it was encased in soot, so I yelled, “DO NOT GET IN THAT WATER,” and left it out for the garbage collection (three days later). Sure, on lovely June afternoons, we’d pack up bags and bikes and scooters and head to the park, but then I’d forget the sunscreen or a football, or someone would inevitably have to use the bathroom, and that was a whole complication, so those outings were never as great as they seemed. We spent hours in museums (Natural History; Children’s; Metropolitan; Modern Art), all of which are wonderful, of course, but were often excuses to fill the units of the day, not activities that anyone was particularly gung ho about after the first few visits.
By last year, the time had come for us to make our decision. Our daughter was going to be starting kindergarten (our son already had), and we knew that this was the moment: pursue the dream of fleeing the city or accept that we were New Yorkers forever. Then we started the debate, in earnest, over where to go. My husband was fanatical in his refusal to consider the suburbs. I secretly assumed this was because he felt like that would be it, his life would become a monotonous Nicolas Cage movie akin to The Family Man, and he’d have to surrender his youth forever. He insisted it was because of the commute, and he’d never see the kids. (Could be that, too.) He wanted warm weather, and though he works in finance, he wanted to escape the Wall Street mentality that dominated so much of his life and drained him day in and day out. He had opportunities to work in California, and I could work from anywhere.
So we started our search. And we immediately ruled out Los Angeles. I’d lived in L.A. for a brief nine months in my twenties. I loved it. Should I be embarrassed to say that? Some people reading probably think so. But it’s true. The weather is impeccable; the people are happy; the lifestyle is unbeatable. But we crossed it off the list. We worried that the obstacles of raising children in L.A. wouldn’t be much different than the obstacles of raising children in NYC: that you’d have to swim upstream to ensure that your kids came out okay. So we looked at San Francisco, which surprisingly didn’t suit us—it felt a little bit like we’d be getting a more Bohemian version of NYC urban living: awesome for a lot of people but not what we wanted. We looked at Marin County, which we both felt was too sleepy. We looked at Santa Barbara, which we deemed heaven, but eventually realized was wildly impractical: we knew nary a soul and my husband would have to commute to San Francisco.
And then we were back in L.A. for a dear friend’s wedding, and my husband looked at me over breakfast near the beach and said, “Why not here?” And that’s when I realized that just like so many New Yorkers we would later tell about our impending move, I’d judged L.A. for all the wrong reasons. Once I realized this, I never reconsidered, never looked back.
Here is what life is like in L.A.: We don’t spend our days inside museums, and surely some people will think that’s egregious. But what we do instead is wake up and take a hike, go to the farmer’s market, and sit on the back porch and watch the kids swimming in the pool or playing basketball with the neighbors or learning to paddle board or golf or play tennis or mountain bike. We have great libraries (just like New York!); we have loads of cultural opportunities, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Getty, the Hollywood Bowl, the Skirball Cultural Center—to name a few (just like New York!); and we have some really, really smart people (just like New York!), who work in interesting industries (lawyers and graphic artists and designers and financiers and screenwriters and stay-at-home moms, too!). None of my friends are obsessed with plastic surgery or, to the best of my untrained eye, have undergone extensive reconstruction (and if they have it’s so good that I’d like the name of their surgeon), and none of them have so much Botox that their faces have morphed into something resembling a Real Housewife.
No one I know is an aspiring actor (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and though, sure, there are celebrities left and right—and their kids play on our kids’ teams and go to their schools—no one really cares. And it turns out that, mostly, stars really are just like us: They do carpool pick-up; they have your kids over for playdates; they cheer when their kid hits a basket. In pockets of L.A., I’m sure celebrity is more revered—I’m not minimizing that. But my husband and I purposely steered away from that culture—in our school, in our neighborhood, in the circles we travel. And in doing so, we’ve found people and friends and parents and children who value the same things that we value: kindness and education and creativity and happiness. Just like someone would in New York. Or Kansas. Or Florida. Los Angeles is no different. To say that L.A. is filled with only sleazy entertainment types is to say that NYC is filled with only morally bankrupt investment bankers. It might be a fun insult to throw around, but it’s completely untrue.
What is different here is the tangible sense of happiness that all four members of our family now have. Frankly, that so many people here have. Sure, you may be saying: “It’s all the Xanax that everyone takes,” but it’s really not. There is an ease about life here that you cannot find in New York. No one is in a hurry; no one has too much to complain about. Or if they do, they don’t take it out on a stranger in the grocery store. People are friendly, which makes you friendlier. People are happy, which makes you happier. If your day sucks, you go for a hike. Or to the beach. Or to yoga. (I know you’ll mock that last one, but it’s true.) It’s hard to be pissed off when you head to the mountains, stare out at the vastness of the landscape, and realize the scope and the beauty of the world around you.
Are there downsides? Well, sure. The car culture is ridiculous, and my son has developed a Rain Man-like obsession with the make/model/year/engine/parts/price of every luxury vehicle on the road. (Which, in L.A., is a lot.) We discourage his obsession, but when there’s a Ferrari to your left and a Lamborghini to your right, it’s tough. Most Angelenos will also complain about the traffic and the freeway construction (which indeed is the worst), but we tried to choose judiciously, so opted for a neighborhood with walkability. Similarly, at least 75 percent of the people on the road should never have passed their driver’s tests, and I often feel like I’m stuck in a game of Pole Position. The food-delivery situation is terrible, so I’ve begrudgingly been forced to learn how to cook (it’s a process), and every time the wind blows the wrong way and rattles the house, I steel myself for a civilization-ending earthquake. Also, the little dogs really hate the big dogs, and the big dogs aren’t too fond of the little ones. In NYC, they were all thrown together and learned to coexist. (A metaphor for the city, to be sure.) And finally, and this is no small thing, the state government is in dire straits, which is obviously not ideal. (Understatement.)
But nowhere is perfect, we all know that by now. L.A. though? It gets a bad rap. Which is fine. You go on thinking we were crazy to move here. We’ll be too busy at the beach to care.
About the author: Allison Winn Scotch (@aswinn) is a New York Times bestselling American author, best known for her novels The One That I Want, Time of My Life, and The Department of Lost and Found. Find out more at her website.
Culture Personal Essay Winter 2013: Classic Hollywood