There’s a myth that California is full of airheads, a myth so firmly lodged in the British psyche that there they call it “La La Land.” And yet according to USC research, “there are more artists, writers, filmmakers, dancers and musicians living in Los Angeles than in any other city at any time in the history of civilization.” There’s also a huge manufacturing industry and seven Fortune 500 companies.
So, clearly we don’t spend all day lying poolside, margarita in hand, (not ALL day obviously.) And not everyone has a trout pout or has taken to anus bleaching, (though we do think white teeth are a good idea). And yes, we like our therapists and our yoga. We intend to grow old disgracefully and to reinvent ourselves on a whim. But does this make us airheads? Hardly.
Before moving to Los Angeles, I lived in England in Stratford on Avon, birthplace of a writer who achieved worldwide fame without ever blogging. I brought with me a husband and two teenagers. Our two cats had been flown out earlier and were staying at The Best Little Cat House, a facility offering cat concierges, rooms with views, web cameras, complimentary manicures, pedicures, daily massages and a choice of menu. Okay I admit this sounds a little over the top, but they were emigrating too.
In the following weeks, I discovered that life here was certainly a little different; my new assistant thought she was a reincarnated angel. Our son was coming home from sleepovers with tales of Jack Nicholson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Our daughter was sporting an American accent and doing a round of Bat Mitzvahs that would have made Cher’s stage set look bland.
But there was barely time for culture shock. Within a few short weeks we had 9/11 and the world would never be the same again- for any of us. This was when people rushed to our door to see if we were okay, inviting us to their homes, bringing round cookies. This was when I hung a tiny American flag from our window and knew I’d come home.
My exit from Vincente’s last night was unusual even by my standards. This was the first time that I had ever done a handstand on the way out of a restaurant. This was also the first time I’d had dinner with Bart Conner and his lovely wife, Nadia Comaneci. Why I felt the urge to share my extremely limited gymnastic ability with two Olympic champions I don’t quite remember. What I do remember is feeling a great sense of security knowing that if I fell, the only American in history to have won gold medals in every category was there to catch me.
This moment has been forever captured in a single photograph. Actually it was my second moment. I performed this feat again, for the camera, because my husband, stunned by the sudden execution of my ‘Perfect Ten’ had not reached for his Blackberry. This in itself is less common than my lack of dignity at the end of a night out.
Generally, if you can’t do something in high heels I’m not interested. And until now I had no idea that I had such a competitive streak. When we have dinner with musicians and actors, I don’t get the urge to break into song or do impersonations.
I like this photograph a great deal. Turns out my stomach looks a lot more toned when I’m upside down. Let’s face it, after a certain age it’s all about gravity and I mean that in a literal sense obviously as ‘ gravitas’ is a state of being which escapes me most of the time.
PS. Bart said that we can work on cartwheels next time.
Dictionary. Com defines the word “casual” as Happening by chance, informal. And that’s what I thought it meant too, until we moved to LA, when soon after our arrival, we were invited to a garden party.
“It’ll be just a few friends…very casual.” We were told.
Clearly we didn’t all get the same memo. I am here to tell you that it is not a good feeling to turn up to something looking like you’re through to the final episode of “Survivor” and find yourself on what appears to be the set of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” In these situations alcoholic beverages are important.
Exactly how “casual” are uniformed maids, waiters, hired bands and enough ice sculptures to deplete Alaska? How “casual” is a Cartier man’s watch, eight carat diamond ring and a Shih Tzu in a personalized Gucci tote?
“What do these people wear on formal occasions?” I wondered.
When the next invitation came in I didn’t know where to begin. I took wise counsel from girlfriends. ‘ Anything goes.’ They told me. ‘ It’s all about individual style.’
Well, if we’re honest it’s not, is it? If we were Vivienne Westwood or Lady Gaga, then I’d agree. But consciously or not, most of us wear a kind of ‘uniform,’ and throw out social signals in the way we dress. I like to blend. In New York I’m all black, in France it’s a navy blazer, in London a trench coat.
But how do you blend in a blonde society? How do you blend in ninety degrees of heat when your hippy days are long behind you? How do you blend when everyone (for a variety of reasons), looks thirty years younger than you do?
How do you do ‘California Casual?’ I’m still working on it.
“Write what you know” (Mark Twain)
This advice is frequently given to aspiring authors. It was given to me years ago and I decided to give it a try. At first I worried that what I knew was not necessarily the stuff of great literature, at least that’s what I thought, until I pared down a couple of Shakespeare plays and examined their plotlines. (This is the kind of thing you do on a Saturday night when you live in Stratford on Avon, have two small children, no social life and the Internet hasn’t been invented yet.)
As Mommy blogs had also not been invented, I just wrote for myself and was quite surprised by how much I knew. For example, I knew that I didn’t belong in the British countryside. I knew that buying a cottage in the middle of nowhere when you are six months pregnant is a big mistake. I knew that we could not afford to renovate it and I knew more about septic tanks than would be useful when we moved back to the city, (which I knew had to be only a matter of time.) What I didn’t know, was that it would take us thirteen years and that the city would be Los Angeles.
I would hate for you to think that I lived in abject misery for thirteen years. I didn’t. If I had, then my writing style would be closer to Sylvia Plath’s. In many ways it was a good life. I ran a successful business. I wrote a lot. I needed to write because I always had this feeling that I didn’t belong, that I was on the outside looking in.
The first time I walked along the beach at Malibu I realized that California was where I was meant to be. After a while I understood the culture, the variety of the landscape and I saw this incredible potential to reinvent my life. As Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.”
I landed here. I ‘know’ this place… and I can’t stop writing about it.
A lot of people in LA have shrinks. Some people have more than one shrink. Some dogs here have shrinks and I probably need one too, because yesterday at Venice Beach, I hired a psychic adviser, a woman who is shifting my energy path and guiding me towards a state of enlightenment. Why this desire for transformation? I hear you ask, you are already so calm and centered.
It began with a simple Tarot card reading, (the kind of thing we do in LA in our relentless search for spiritual answers to cosmic questions.) It was all going well until my psychic turned over The Eight of Swords. Okay. So it’s not exactly the Death card but there aren’t any bunny rabbits on there either. Apparently, the ‘eight’ represents ‘a yin energy, unlocking the ties that bind and finding your voice’. I was sold, because it’s one thing to be a writer and a completely different thing to talk about what you’ve written. I struggle for that voice.
How do you distill two years’ work into the few seconds you might have at a dinner, before someone loses interest or the waiter launches into the ‘specials’? I need a good sound bite to the inevitable question; “So… what’s your book about?” Tolstoy may well have answered, “I’ve just written a tragic love story and am currently working on an idea around war and peace.” At which point I might have asked him how he found the time to do that, what with him having thirteen children. (I only have two and I need a psychic adviser.)
While I think it highly unlikely that a woman down on Venice Beach is transmitting on some metaphysical frequency, I do have absolute respect for anyone who can get me to part with cash for something so intangible. I am also reminded that with enough imagination we can create something out of thin air, just like Svetlana, the aerialist who took our breath away on a cotton- filled cloud swing on Saturday night. A story well told has the power to take us somewhere we have never been before. It may not translate to a sound bite, but we all have a unique voice, we just have to find it.
“BIG MISTAKE…Big… HUGE!”
This morning I came across a Joan Rivers’ quote- Never let a panty line show around your ankle.
So…and this is a profound thought…some women go shopping… so that they can wear the clothes they bought last time they went shopping…to pretend to shop. Think about it. Everyone knows you can’t look like you’re airbrushed after you’ve tried to buy a pair of jeans in Barneys. Finding the perfect pair of jeans is the most thorough work –out you are ever going to get in LA, and that’s without the psychological counseling you’ll need when you come to terms with the fact, that although you enjoy her blog, you are not Gwyneth Paltrow.
Not long ago, in a side –lit mirror at Barneys, I caught sight of a deranged geriatric leaving a changing room empty handed. It turned out to be me. A few minutes afterwards, I ran smack into an immaculate Calista Flockhart. We’d met at a dinner a few weeks before. After exchanging a few strangled pleasantries, I went straight home.
And so it came to pass… that on my next shopping expedition I pulled it together; carefully applied foundation, a little blush, hair pulled back a la Jessica Parker, a black tee that would survive a mid morning espresso, the black pants I had worn the previous evening and the Louboutins I usually keep for night time. Bring it ON !
My newfound confidence was such that I decided on a little detour to the Yves St Laurent boutique on Rodeo Drive to experience my very own “ Pretty Woman” moment. This went fine, though not having Richard Gere’s black card proved to be a disadvantage. But I did get lingering glances that fuelled my newfound sense of poise and so I took a jaunt around Chanel and Louis Vuitton with ‘attitude’. Daunted at the thought of trying on jeans, I continued to saunter around Beverly Hills and bought some foundation in Barneys, simply to bask in my super cool reflection.
It was when I was undressing, later that afternoon that I noticed the pair of knickers attached to the heel of my shoe. The knickers that had clearly worked their way down one leg of last night’s trousers to get there.
Who knew there’s such a thing as wearing too MANY undergarments?
This morning I discovered that I had been the victim of fraud rather than a victim of my usual cavalier accounting methods. Someone had dined out at my expense at Denny’s. Fortunately the bank spotted that this would not be my restaurant of choice and blocked the card. Now this is where being a writer comes in handy…everything is material. My head was racing… How do you spend a hundred dollars at Denny’s? I wondered. There’s a lack of creative imagination for you…they could have had such a lovely time at Chateau Marmont. And this solved the dilemma of how to start my first blog, bringing me nicely around to the topic of my soon to be published novel ‘India’s Summer.’ I may have to repeat that. ‘My soon to be published novel’ where some of the action, yes you guessed, takes place at the aforementioned hotel.
Of course blogging is a completely different thing from writing a book. I feel a self -inflicted pressure to be pithy and witty and wise. But I’m getting over that because I’ve found my tribe. I am one of the few invited writers making a debut with The Fiction Studio. This is such a wonderful opportunity and I love the sense of community Lou has created.
Aaron Sorkin once told me that he never set out to be a writer. Well it worked out pretty well for him (West Wing and The Social Network not bad for starters.) At the time I was thumping away at my first novel: How to Stay Upwardly Mobile- When You’re Spinning Out of Control, which pretty much speaks for itself. But I had never set out to be a writer either. Who knew that once I started it would be my first and only drug of choice. When I’m writing, time does peculiar things. I forget to eat. I become antisocial. I wake up at odd times of the night and scribble away for hours, (to greater or lesser effect.) I find myself highly amusing. The fridge stays empty. I take to reading things I’ve written out loud to the cat. Like take this blog (please)…I’m due at a reception with their Royal Highnesses, otherwise known as Will and Kate. I’ve just seen the time. The car is coming in half an hour and I’m not even showered…. No doubt there will be something worth blogging about in the morning, but right now I have to dash…
It’s raining here this morning. Okay I know it’s October, but you have to understand that Californians have a pathological fear of getting wet unless we’re at the ocean or in the pool. We have mudslides and flooding, but you will rarely hear that from us. We’re in denial.
I was in Wholefoods at seven o’clock, carefully negotiating my way around the hazard signs that were already causing a hazard. California is a litigious part of the planet and as a result we’re pan-phobic. If you stopped to read all the warning signs on food labels you would never eat again. And frankly if I were a pregnant woman I would stay indoors with my air filtration system and humidifier drinking filtered water. Life was so much simpler when all you had to do was stop drinking and smoking on the way to the maternity ward.
Everyone was very cheery. An assistant kept popping up from behind the vegetable stands.
‘Hi. How are YOU?’ (at the potatoes.’) ‘ Good. How are you?”
‘ Hi How are YOU? (at the leeks.) ‘ Good. How are you?’
‘Hi How are YOU?’( at the carrots.) ‘Good thanks… I think we’ve been here before.’
It was getting surreal. We were all very chatty. We needed to talk, probably to reassure ourselves we were still in LA. In one aisle I met a man with a jar in his hand. He was clearly confused and disoriented. I assured him I like peanuts and butter in my ‘peanut butter’ too and that he was looking at the vegan option.
A law student told me about her course at UCLA. We chose tomatoes together. Then I had a hot breakfast of steaming coffee, French toast and burrito after checking my Iphone and seeing that it had gone down to sixty -two degrees out there.
After that a cashier offered help to my car even though the parking lot is under cover. I accepted. We loaded up the trunk and commiserated over our hair. I aqua-glided home trying to remember how the windshield wipers worked and wondering if I should light the fire and stay home the rest of the day.
When it rains everyone is late for everything. We blame an apocryphal pile up on the freeway in the certain knowledge there will have been one. It is rare to see an umbrella or rain boots. To invest the time or energy in protective outerwear would be to acknowledge that there are days when the sun doesn’t shine.