Feb 162011

Ocean Beach Pier


And if California slides into the ocean, like the mystics and statistics say it will…

-Warren Zevon


No Bad Days

A popular bumper sticker here reads “No Bad Days.” These words, scribbled in white, tiki-style letters with an accompanying copse of swaying palm trees, seem to capture a pervasive San Diego ethos. Bathed in incessant sunshine and aquamarine skies, it’s easy to believe in such a concept: that there could, conceivably, be no bad days.

But No Bad Days demands a fulltime attitude adjustment to keep up with its endless-summer cheeriness. No Bad Days implies lithe bodies, salt-spray hair and a fountain-of-youth refusal to grow old. It demands that you smile at strangers, sport flip-flops year round,  and stuff board shorts and towels in the trunk, just in case. It constructs a dream landscape built on breakfast burritos, noontime margaritas and PCH kisses against a backdrop of spinnakers and sunsets. No Bad Days proffers paradise as if it was a tangible thing, a widely available commodity cast in bright ceramic tiles forever walling-off real life. A place where complexity reduces itself to surf reports and the nearest tamale stand.

But nothing is that simple, not even here. The false front of No Bad Days crumbles upon even the most elementary examination. Still, it’s an easy first-glance impression of life in San Diego.


The glorious contradiction of San Diego is the weather. Carbon-copy perfect days roll off with such an unerring consistency, such a dress-parade precision of seventy-two and sunny, that you soon begin to take them for granted. You stop noticing Christmas Eve rounds of golf, shorts in January, the last time you made your children wear jackets to school. You begin to believe that a daytime high of 61 degrees constitutes a cold front or that three hours of light drizzle equals a storm. You become so spoiled by the spectacle of beautiful weather that it stops being spectacular. I don’t know how this happens, but it does.

San Diego sunrise from my bedroom.

I grew up in central Massachusetts—a geeky, weather-obsessed kid fascinated by clouds. In summer I studied cumulonimbus giants towering above a northwestern horizon of sugar maples. I learned to read the clouds and the silver-backs of maple leaves, able (I told myself) to predict the likelihood of electrical storms as well as any meteorologist. I listened for the subtle sounds of winter storms, how icy stratus clouds acted like an echo chamber in the night sky, creating a certain pitched whirl from Beechcraft turboprops droning overhead, a haunting sound that seemed to forecast coming snow. Risking the wrath of the winter-weary reader, I hesitantly say that, at times, I wish for something other than relentless paradise. I long for dramatic weather here, for lightning, sleet, or a good old-fashioned Alberta Clipper to numb my finger tips.

The closest I get to that old feeling is when scorching Santa Ana winds howl down from the mountains. Sometimes, when the windows rattle at night, it feels a bit more like home.

There is an underside to our empyrean climate, a manic assuredness that sets in among the inhabitants, as if we San Diegans have forgotten how to endure nature, like we’ve crossed into some middle-zone paralysis of comfort and leisure. We think our weather, like our television set, operates on remote control and that we can simply pay extra for premium days. Perhaps we’ve lost some primal skill-set that folks in places like Worcester retain.

It’s also possible that the contradiction is only within me, some curmudgeonly itch that can’t be scratched by seventy-two and sunny. Perhaps my longing for occluded fronts and Nor’easters holds me back from partaking in No Bad Days—there’s always someone who wants to rain on the parade. But even after living here, off and on, for ten years, most days I feel like a polar bear swimming laps in a frosty pool at the San Diego Zoo, wondering when I’ll return to my real home, some place with gray skies, snow and rain, where a beautiful day still feels like a gift, like an unexpected moment of grace. It’s hard to notice grace when it constantly surrounds you.

I realize that this logic smacks of survivor’s guilt, the paroled New Englander unable to forget incessant winters, or hazy, hot and humid days, or the rich canvases of turbulent clouds. That young boy believed he was standing guard against rough weather like a sentry. In San Diego, the sentry sleeps.

But then I look out the window and see golden sunshine, off-shore breezes rippling through palm fronds, and I recognize the absurdity of my longing.


Point LomaPoint Loma


We live on Point Loma, a four-mile hilly peninsula that juts into the Pacific like a vestigial tail from the body of the contiguous United States. Four-hundred foot sandstone cliffs tumble toward the sea on one side and the bay on the other. Hiking trails along the aptly named Sunset Cliffs fill with gawkers waiting to spy the green flash or sea lions frolicking in the surf. On the bay side, warships glide past the Cabrillo Lighthouse at the end of the point, heading out for extended deployments, or coming back from the same.

The small community of Ocean Beach where we rent a house is an eclectic blend of families, retirees, surfers, homeless and medicinal marijuana devotees, all coexisting in a weird, welcoming balance. OB stands in stark contrast to the cookie-cutter San Diego suburbs where we used to live; it still feels like “Old California,” whatever the hell that means. I suppose it means that you can be a full-time surf bum here, a student, a homeless vet with a cardboard sign along the road, or a bio-tech engineer with a No Bad Days sticker on your S-class Mercedes. OB, like many beach towns, fights a losing battle with gentrification, as multi-million dollar homes crowd out surf-shacks.

Ocean Beach SunsetOcean Beach Sunset

Greasy spoons abound in OB’s small commercial district: Hodad’s sells thick, meaty burgers for less than ten bucks in an open air café; South Beach is legendary for its fish tacos. Newbreak Coffee is my weekend hideout, a beachfront shop where they don’t yet enforce the ‘no shoes, no shirts, no service’ policy in spite of a sign in the window. Try rolling into Starbucks with sandy feet.


It seems impossible not to obsess on real estate living in San Diego. You scrap for every over-priced square foot. Neighbors’ walls are so close that with a good stretch from your bedroom window, it’s possible to flush their toilets. You learn to live with less here, and to pay a lot more for it. What you give up in back yards and privacy you recoup in sunshine.

We rent a small house less than a mile from the beach. Neither of my kids enjoys the year-round chilly surf yet. My daughter Maggie prefers to gather lemons and oranges from trees in our backyard in order to sell fifty-cent cupfuls of freshly-squeezed on the sidewalk. Maureen, my wife, makes killer guacamole from our two avocado trees. Five year-old Tom cares for none of it; he wants only endless games of tackle football with me in the front yard. He will have no memory of diving into snow banks for Nerf touchdowns, but I have no memories of citrus trees, so perhaps it’s a wash.  Snow is exotic to my children; they shiver in a stiff breeze. They’ve only lived in California and Andalucía. Sunshine and waves seem their birthright. Maureen grew up in Michigan but can’t imagine living in the cold anymore. Apparently only I worry about the limitations of paradise.


The San Diego River forms the northern limit of OB and Pt. Loma. Homeless people shelter beneath the many bridges which cross the river into Mission Bay and Mission Beach. I imagine San Diego a good place to live if you’re homeless, but this logic falls into a No Bad Days way of thinking. It’s simplistic and naïve. The complexity of their problems eludes me, but I admit to being more likely to part with a buck or two on a rare rainy day. Ocean Beach has always been considered ‘homeless-friendly.’  This is a good thing. Not every community out here is.

The San Diego River, though reduced to a mere shadow of its former self, still cuts through the heart of the eighth largest city in America. It offers an urban sanctuary to thousands of birds and a colony of wild cats. Scores of the birds feed in a tidal estuary: osprey, pelicans, egrets, terns and the majestic Great Blue Heron nibble in sandy bottoms of tide-pushed sloughs. The river, so woefully damaged by a century’s worth of human diversion and manipulation, steadfastly refuses to die, and in a final, defiant act, it feeds and protects the marginalized: cats, fowl, and humans without homes.


Before moving here, I’d heard that California was a car culture. I used to think this meant that Californians were more ‘into’ their cars than other places—bikinied blondes soaping up low riders, GTO’s and little deuce coups. What it means, in practical terms, is that we spend more time in our cars than we should. San Diego lacks effective rail systems, and the county sprawls. Our communities are scattered like distant organs and connected by a vascular system of freeways—massive ten lane arteries that wreak havoc on the greater body and soul when they clog. I’ve learned to stash books in my car, in case all progress stops. Three hour traffic jams are rare, but have happened here.

If our freeways are the vascular system, then San Diego’s skeleton is the military. Within a ten-mile radius of my house, there are seven separate commands. Navy-trained dolphins practice detecting explosives on the bottom of ships. SEALs train on the golden beaches of Coronado Island. Fighter jets rumble in the sky, launched from the airfields of Miramar and North Island. Nuclear powered aircraft carriers, massive cities unto themselves, moor quietly along the harbor when not deployed. Guided missile cruisers, destroyers, frigates, submarines and shallow draft amphibious assault ships sail in and out of the bay. Distant booms from howitzers at Camp Pendleton, some forty miles north of the city, sometimes rumble the earth.

Maureen has been on active duty for almost fourteen years, though so far she’s managed to avoid deploying to a combat zone. We are hoping to keep that streak going.

Marine Corps Recruit DepotMarine Corps Recruit Depot

The closest base to me is the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. There, young recruits endure thirteen weeks of dehumanizing boot-camp designed to press the men for the horror of war. (Female recruits train only in South Carolina.) At the end of their training, I see these newly minted PFC’s, red and gold chevrons blazing on their olive sleeves, proudly linked arm-in-arm with mothers and girlfriends. Their ramrod straight postures and starched uniforms betray no weaknesses as they enjoy a lull between the hell of training and the much greater hell of combat.

Sometimes, I see these Marines again, at the military hospital where my wife works as a physician. Many of these young men come home battered, dismembered, limbs gone, bodies scarred and burned. One of the great crimes of these recent wars was the decision to shield the public from the casualties. An unspeakable horror hits me each time I see these “Wounded Warriors,” often waiting in line with my daughter at the base McDonald’s, trying to explain to her why some young kid has high-tech prosthetic devices in place of legs, his hair still shaved high and tight.

Desperados Under the Eaves

I do wonder what life would be like without bad days? That bumper sticker ineloquently fumbles toward a utopia, but it also masks a sunshine-induced, willful ignorance. No Bad Days epitomizes a beach culture of paradise and boat drinks, but hides a switching-off of the heart, a refusal to empathize with people who might, in fact, be having bad days. It turns a dream into a blind-eyed arrogance and makes paradise seem possible, but only for the elect.

San Diego is a beautiful place. My wife and I want to raise our children here, but I don’t want them to be fooled into mistaking the dream for reality. What will ultimately make San Diego home for me? I don’t know for sure, but it will certainly include good days and bad ones.

It rained last night and has been showering this morning. San Diego is beautiful when it rains, as rare as those days are. The beaches clear out. You can find yourself almost entirely alone on Sunset Cliffs or down along the San Diego River. The city seems to slow a little when the sun takes a break, and I prefer it that way.

—Richard Farrell

Rich Farrell and family

Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.


  45 Responses to “What It’s Like Living Here — Richard Farrell in San Diego, CA”

  1. I lived in So. Cal most my life and remember your No Bad Days was my Another Day in Paradise. I took it for granted and wished for a season besides summer. I’m still in Calif. but far away from that climate. It’s extreme temperatures where I live. I vow that if I ever move back “home”, I’ll never complain again about it being just another day in paradise. sigh.

  2. “It’s hard to notice grace when it constantly surrounds you…..”
    and yet it does…

  3. Great piece, Rich. I remember visiting San Diego during a odd “cold front” one spring several years ago and I wonder when, or if, it will feel like home to you.

  4. What a beautiful and varied place. So different than Texas. Thanks for taking me there!

  5. Joshua Tree remains one of my favorites in SD. Thanks for commenting.

  6. I especially like the juxtaposition of Rich’s (tortured ???) expression with the heading “No Bad Days.” It’s hard to be happy, ain’t it?

  7. Man, we live in such different Californias, don’t we? I guess that’s what happens in a long, skinny state that nearly spans the length of the country. Strong writing, Rich. I love the sentences about the sentry. You can take the boy out of the Navy….

    • Thanks, D. When are we getting your installment? I’m sure you have all kinds of stories living in The Mission District. Hell, I had 3 stories in the 2 hours I was there with you! 🙂

  8. Great way of trying to understand the differences in childhood memories and figuring out what home means when you’re so far away from what it meant to you as a kid. I lived in a slumbering beach town for seventeen years. I know many of the characters in your neighborhood. I’d often lounge at the Hilton pool at the beach and act as if I was on vacation, though home was only fifteen minutes away. “No Bad Days” begs the question: what makes a day, bad? Great read, Rich.

  9. Great stuff, Rich.

    No bad days—sounds like torture. I don’t know if I could stand it. I needed the report on returning soldiers to pull me back. I wonder if the two are connected.

  10. I spent my sophomore year of hs in Redlands…. I still remember the smell of orange blossoms in the air. Right now the pollution in Milan (like every winter) has exceeded legal limits. Diesel exhaust hovers along streets and lingers in every intersection. That sunny orange memory seems far off and so long ago. I’d like to get back to that place. Your piece helped bring me there. Thanks.

  11. I’ve lived in Vermont for eleven years, the Green Mountain state, a state I instantly bonded with the day I came here as a resident in 2000. I cherish the verdant license plate that’s always noticed even beneath the snowy, icy, and muddied layer of film that frosts it most of the year. I look forward to winter, the short days when darkness descends at three in the afternoon giving me an excuse to cuddle on my living room couch with a good book swaddled under my mother-in-law’s hand-knit afghan. It’s the pressure, the expectation to be outside until nine in the evening during the summer solstice that irks me. When fall approaches, a jolt of electricity jump-starts each and every cell in my body, for it’s during the change of season from fall to winter I look forward to; the days when I can hibernate, come up with my usual excuse when friends and family ask me to get together: “The roads are too dangerous to drive, it’s too cold to go out.” It’s during the long winter months in Vermont – November through April, and not surprisingly, a few days in May – when I feel at liberty to hang out in my well-worn sweatpants and over=sized sweatshirt on the couch with a good old glass of hot whiskey and a crossword puzzle, dozing by eight-thirty and not caring one bit what Mother Summer will soon have to say: “It’s time to be outside!”

    But it was my sighting of a homeless man today, a middle-aged man who could have easily been my husband, standing on the corner of Main and Union Streets in Burlington, that caught my attention. “Homeless, hungry and broke, the perfectly cut cardboard sign read. Luckily, it was a warm day: fifty two! I wondered what he thought of the uncharacteristic February temperatures in the far north-east. You mentioned survivor’s guilt. Well, that’s exactly what I felt, for in the sub-zero temperatures we get more often than not during the height of winter here in Vermont, I know I have a bed with a thick down comforter to crouch under along side a partner whose warm feet reach out for mine, warming them to sleep each and every night without fail. Like you, I, too, offer snacks to the homeless, snacks stashed behind the driver’s seat on the salty mats of my Toyota Prius. Still, I dread the onslaught of longer days when the sun screams through my bedroom window at six in the morning and the cardinals sing, “tomato, tomato, tomato.” Well, I guess dread is a strong description because, it’s true, I enjoy a good long walk on a full moon summer’s night when the air smells of fresh mulch. It’s true that I look forward to warm plump strawberries melting in the palm of my hand and blueberry stains beneath my fingernails. It’s so true that I look forward to towering sunflowers laid row upon row through acres of farmland and their canary yellow petals that tickle the nape of my neck as I squat to cut their thick stems at just the right spot. It’s the Audubon in Huntington I look forward to in summer time, the long Sunday afternoon hikes with my husband when we talk and listen to one-another for hours on end, more hours than we have time to talk and listen to one-another during the week when he’s at his “real” job.

    And, just before fall approaches, it’s the scent of freshly picked corn from the local farm that makes me smile, for not only do I eat it by the dozen, I know right around the corner is fall, the scent of Macintosh and cider donuts! The crisp days brightened by the changing maples and oaks, the painted hills and mountains remind me why I moved to Vermont.

    So, when winter knocks on my door with its blast of zero degree days and feet upon feet of white powder, I’m okay with it. I snowshoe, make snow angels, build snowmen, sled, whip snowballs at my husband all the while knowing what’s around the corner: change which have learned to embrace because, let’s face it, nothing ever stays the same.

    • What a great comment, Melissa! An essay unto itself. I spent a good chunk of my life towing the party line, agreeing with people who complained about short days and cold nights or long days and hot nights. It’s only after I left New England that I realized what a mask I wore. I may have been the only one who loved stormy weather in my family, but I did love it, damn it to hell! Perspective is a wondeful thing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
      “When fall approaches, a jolt of electricity jump-starts each and every cell in my body, for it’s during the change of season from fall to winter I look forward to”. What a magical line. You’ve hit what I was trying to say. It happens here, too. That first night of woodsmoke (granted, it’s 59, not 29 degrees)…it took me almost forty years to accept and acknowledge that feeling.

      • Glad it resonated with you, Rich. Sorry for the typos. As a writer, I need to do a bit more proof-reading or accept the fact that I shouldn’t write during the late evening hours.

  12. Sorry I’m just now reading this, Rich – this is truly wonderful! Really takes me there. And not just the physical descriptions, but your sharp turns of phrase: “That young boy believed he was standing guard against rough weather like a sentry. In San Diego, the sentry sleeps.” Well done, my friend.

  13. I love your words.

  14. Rich,

    I would be remiss in not commenting. This is a lovely, wonderful piece. This is why you got the signing bonus when you came to NC.

  15. A great read, Rich. I once spent a week on the Coronado Island, at the Hotel Del! Would run into the Navy Seals on my morning walks sometimes. Woo Hoo!

    Great memories of SoCal.

  16. Wow Rich! You completely capture something so profoundly California here. Your writing is so “rich” I can feel the texture AND veneer that is SoCal. I now understand completely why your signing bonus from Doug was so generous.

  17. Thanks for this beautiful piece, Rich. We are from the North Shore of MA and have three children, 8, 6, 4. This winter has ignited my dream to live in a beautiful warm climate. All of my research keeps pointing me toward San Diego. You are right, living in MA, a warm, sunny day feels like a fleeting grace has been bestowed upon us. I know I need more sunshine, warmth and outdoor activity. Thank you!

  18. Rich,

    Great piece on San Diego. I have been to your great city 6 or 7 times. I have lived in Connecticut since 1992. New England has much to offer (as do other parts of the country) but I must say, San Diego is hands down my favorite “climate” environment/place on the earth. If I had the financial resources, I would live in La Jolla in a heartbeat. I love everything about San Diego. Of course, no place is perfect and it does not have those “brilliant” falls that you and I have experienced back in New England but I could sacrifice those for the year round comfort of Southern California.

    Consider yourself very, very fortunate.

    Greg Moore
    Guilford, CT

    P.S. You have a great looking family.

    • Greg,
      Thanks for reading and for commenting. Hope you can find your way out here often!
      Best wishes!

  19. Great piece of writing and window into life in/around San Diego.

    I’ve lived my entire life in Ontario, Canada. I live in a town outside of Toronto, and the commute has been ranked as one of the worst in North America (traffic-wise). Though I am lucky to live in the town that I do. To have grown up in a place that is incredibly safe, rather friendly, and centrally located so that if I do want the “big city life” it’s only a quick hop in the car (or commuter train) away. I do work in Toronto, so that kind of fills my quota for city life.

    I’ve travelled around the U.S. and Canada as much as possible, and have been as far East as Tahiti; as far West as P.E.I. The Dominican Republic is as far as I’ve ventured South, and Northern Saskatchewan is as far North.

    California, much like NYC, has always held my imagination, captivating me, anytime I think of it. I know that’s not unusual as California has thrown a Siren’s call over many people over the past century-plus.
    3 visits to that state haven’t quenched my curiosity; plus none of those visits have included my wife so I hope to rectify that someday soon.

    The climate in my neck of the woods is that of extremes. It can be quite cold in the winters (-40C and damp making it feel twice as cold), and quite hot in the summers (30C plus humidity…which is a beast I’d love to slay). I can empathize with your longing to experience the seasons again. There is nothing I love more than an early October day, where the colour-shifted leaves are still clinging to the trees, and there is a cool crispness to the air that makes you happy to be alive. All this while the sun is out and warm enough to let you get by with a sweater instead of a jacket.

    Though, there isn’t a day where I haven’t said aloud (and mostly in the summer) “I’d trade the seasonal shift for 22C all year-round” (which is almost 72º on the dot).
    I think I would truly miss the cold, as I tend to be warm all the time, thus creating a great misery in the summer when the humidity moves in and kills my will to live. You’re never in the shade, because even in the shade you’re sweating. But the trade-off in losing my winters would be that idyllic temp range.

    And anywhere you hang your hat is going to have it’s ups and downs; it’s struggles and triumphs. You’re very lucky to be surrounded as you are by such a picturesque location. I don’t think it’s unfair for you to make the effort as you do to see through what many see as perfection. Because by doing so, you’re making where you live even more special. Without that glimpse behind the curtain, it would all seem far too artificial. Like a Stepford community.

    I don’t want this to sound preachy, but you just have to look at your family to realize what makes San Diego home for you. It’s those football games in the yard with your son. Watching your daughter pick the lemons that will become a thirst quencher for the neighbours. And knowing your wife is making a difference in the lives of those who serve your country, as she does. All of that will, at some point in your life, equate to memories of home. I can understand the longing for what you grew up with, and someday who’s to say you don’t move back East? But for now, be happy with the knowledge that your children are forming the very same type of memories of where they live as you did in your youth.

    Lemon trees for storm clouds doesn’t sound that bad, does it?


  20. This is beautifully written in a way that will linger on the mind like an unforgettable fragrance. Thank you.

  21. I live in London but just spent a few days in SD. I was not really ready to leave when the day came and a feeling I have never had before when visiting places around the world. I was meet with so much friendliness, the sun, okay only about 60F but still gorgeous. Lovely walks, lovely drives and such a calmness around that just made me want to stay. Something just wanted me to stay but then my daughter would have been unhappy in London. Enjoy SD, look after it and see you soon.

  22. Rich. Somehow I landed on this sight looking for more info on San Diego. I remember you as Kelly Gearin’s Neighbor. I used to date her years ago when I was in my twenties. Good ole Walter street. John

  23. Awesome read! Thank you.

  24. This was an awesome read.

  25. I moved from northern California to Arizona four years ago. The climate changes here are radical BUT I really enjoy them! If Arizona had the ocean it would be heaven for me! I’m moving to San Diego soon and will miss Arizona deeply. It really is beautiful here. I grew up in Chicago and can say I will never again live in a place that gets below 30 degrees. I like to be outside all year long. Scraping ice off a car and shoveling snow are just not what I want to be doing with my time. Sure snowmen and hot chocolate are great memories but there is always snow a few hours from almost anywhere in California if the need arises. I hope San Diego is as nice as Arizona. I remember in Northern California it was always lines, traffic, grey sky’s, and grumpy people. I’m hoping SD is that perfect median between SF and AZ!

  26. My earliest recollection is living in a Sunset Cliffs cracker-back housing project (long since gone) that was constructed in the early 40’s to house WWII defense-factory workers. As a life-long resident I say you’ve done a nice job of capturing the flavor of San Diego living.

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