What It’s Like Living Here
By Rich Farrell in San Diego
And if California slides into the ocean, like the mystics and statistics say it will…
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 elemental 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.