"bending battles/maneuvering schemes/false expressions/washed up dreams/everybody makes believe in..."--Rufus
Against all odds, some eight years after landing in this alien planet we affectionately call "City of Angels"--even while acknowledging it's really stock full of devils--Los Angeles has become home. I no longer feel like I'm getting out of dodge when the wheels lift on the plane going anywhere but here, and I actually look forward to returning to the land of trendy sushi and mind-blowing traffic.
There are some clear pluses. This place is absolutely beautiful, from the exotic palm trees and ocean views to the mountains that surround the city looking like they were freehand drawn by God to the wide boulevards packed with beautiful young people living their lives out loud . The weather is phenomenal, replete with 80 degree winter days to the L.A. summers, which are sexy and epic. Add to all that that the best artists from all corners of the globe end up in this town, and as such, there is an entrepreneurial spirit in this town bolstered by a cornucopia of talent that lives here. People arrive with an immutable hunger to see their dreams come true and be amongst the throng of people clawing their way to the top.
But let's be clear: It's not all wine and roses.
Los Angeles lacks a lot of things that people from just about any other place in the United States can identify as priority. For instance, there is a deep, pervasive cultural void here. The rich sense of community that defines every other place I've ever known is supplanted in Hollyweird by a marked spirit of entitlement. For every member of the best, brightest, and smartest class of creatives that emigrate here, there are ten idiots coming to be famous, thinking because they were voted "Best Hair" in a high school class of 100 people in B.F.E. someone's going to hand them an Oscar in this star-powered village. Not to mention "The Secret" that creative people are among the most insane, angst-y folks on the planet (not excepting myself). Excavating all that visionary truth out of a body isn't easy, and there's a dark side to artistry. Consequently, people in this town are always on the lookout for a vice that masquerades as a credo or soulful preservative (*cough* Scientology *cough*). Simply put, this town lacks the reliant spiritual resolve that characterized my upbringing and the environment in which I was raised.
Most acknowledge the inevitability of an existential outlook in a place so naturally beautiful--of course there has to be a higher power that imagined the mesmerizing visual that is California. But while an exciting hustle vibes about our town, you find it's accented by a contagious restlessness that seeks respite in all kinds of crazy spiritual solutions. In fact there is no clear spiritual center to this city; if New York is about the nonconformist expression of personhood, then Los Angeles is about her spiritual freedom. Which could be a celebration except that there's a Jim Jones-esque quality to the spiritual side of L.A.; people latch onto any marketable doctrine that looks and feels workable. Even more confusing is the religion buffet this city feasts on; people patchwork quilt their beliefs together from a myriad of faiths and practices--and yet still have no true resolve at the end of the day. Anything goes, and sometimes the free-spirited nature of the value system here is a lil bit scary.
You have to not only be totally passionate about what you do to live here, but you also have to be totally convinced of who you are since if you're not careful you can begin to feel as though you live in a funhouse, mirrors and all. Because there's the whole truth: This is the land of the fake, the phony, the completely created and unreal. The pageantry doesn't end with the Universal Studios tour; nothing in L.A. is as it seems. Remember the "squatters' rights" laws that became popular nationwide a couple years ago, the age-old legislation on the books that in contemporary terms meant that people could randomly move into foreclosed homes that had been abandoned and take them over? Well, that system was old hat for us out here; part of dating in L.A. when I first arrived was coming to understand why seemingly successful men were constantly moving from mansion to mansion and never really furnishing any of them. In my country naivete, I thought they were just restless millionaires who needed a woman's touch. Little did I know they were savvy poseurs, playing the system while they tended their careers, getting paid when and where they could like every other working actor, musician, and writer in this town.
Making lumps sums of money stretch until the elusive next paycheck shows up is our way of life, but when you see the people the rest of the country watches on television cashing unemployment checks in the bank and 'receiving funds' at Moneygram in the grocery store, the slip on the whole situation does hang a bit. And speaking of slips, I'm all for high-maintenance beauty regimens, but women here have more cosmetic surgery and other beauty treatments than you could possibly imagine, particularly young women in their 20's. "Miss New Booty" doesn't even begin to describe the total body makeovers I have witnessed in my time--some admittedly for the benefit and some to the clear detriment. Tits and ass pop up overnight, flaws disappear from season to season and if you go a year without seeing someone, a fun game at any gathering is to try to put your finger on what's "different" about them. Nose? Chin? Cheeks? Arms? Yes, yes, yes, and no...oh, yes. "Hoeing", moreover, is an absolute art here, and I've known L.A. ladies of the night who have never even had their own apartment and have instead shacked from guy to guy, making the rounds as "kept" women until they could get one sucker for love to wife them. This process is, literally, their job. No judgment though *side eye*.
And I could live with all of that. People do what people do, but LA has done one thing to me that is not okay. Something so heinous and frightening that it's made me think about moving on more than one occasion.
L.A. has made me a little dumb.
All aforementioned issues aside, let's be real when we say Los Angeles isn't exactly a thinker's paradise. At any given moment, you can throw a coin and hit someone who counts on his fingers and has to move his lips when he reads. Intelligent folks come to Los Angeles, but how long they remain intelligent once they get here is up for grabs.
When I first arrived, I stayed in my Washington, DC academic cocoon, still reading the NYT and WSJ and checking Drudge Report intermittently throughout each day. I went to the library and tried to keep my brain working as it should. BUT. As I got more consumed by our seductive Southern California culture, my intellectual rituals increasingly fell by the wayside. And it was a few years ago when I went up North to San Francisco to visit one of my best friends from college that I found I was far from the smart Capital City college girl that stepped off the plane in La-La land way back when. My BFF had taken me to a get together for a friend of hers, and while I walked into the party feeling like the fresh, hot thing off the SoCal presses, I quickly realized that these were not the usual suspects. I was prepared for the size-up--L.A. competes in looks, brawn, and the career lottery. But these people were talking about the 'real' world, having the financial and political discussions that typified my East Coast academic experiences. As I boldly joined in the conversation, I was surprised to find that not only had my vocabulary shrunk considerably, but that I wasn't really prepared to discuss much.
While they talked about foreign film, I thought about the newest [blockbuster] Paramount releases. While they discussed the financial crisis, I thought about Pilot Season. While these people discussed international news, I realized the only global considerations I had anymore were Brazilian waxes, Brazilian booties, and Brazilian hair. In fact, I remember getting drunk that night as I sipped away my feelings of inferiority and inadequacy, wondering if I was destined to the pointless dribble my life had become. It happened back East as well; when I went home to visit, I was labeled "the Hollywood friend"--I had the wild, glamorous weaves, the beauty secrets, the year-round tan, and the industry skinny…but not much else. Adding insult to injury, I realized that I'd become the very thing I most disdained about L.A.: I was a walking advertisement for all that was not real. As I struggled [sometimes miserably] to build a career and still have a life, everyone back home saw adventure and prosperity. But in reality I was broke and burdened in every area of my life. I was the façade, the creation for which my new "hometown" was known. Roll away the couches and props and there was an empty set.
I've realized that in order to be truly successful in Los Angeles, an awakening must occur. Once you "get" that you can't be one with this city and be successful in it, your focus shifts. The past couple of years have been about that for me. Getting back to who I once was spiritually, intellectually, mentally, and enhancing those things as I continue to journey towards the fulfillment of my dreams. Someone told me last year "you cannot lead people and be just like them". In order to be a leader in the life I've chosen, I can't be "of" any place, even while in it. There are some awful things about Los Angeles, some things that make me uncomfortable, things I would change if I had the power. But at the end of the day, I've realized that it's in God's hands, this culture that breeds a soul-changing journey.
If you let it.