Here I am back in the big L.A. after kicking off the New Year in the hometown of my heart, Portland, Oregon. And guess what? IT’S COLD! It has been in the 30’s and 40’s here for the past week and the locals are calling it a “cold snap.” Meanwhile, I was chatting with my Mom (who lives in Idaho) and she informed me that it was 1 degree up there. As in ONE DEGREE. Why is that degree even hanging on? It should just give up already. Make it a clean Zero. Anyway, enough about Idaho! Focus, Dani!
It was a fascinating experience being back in Portland for a week and then coming back to my new home in LA, and I’m sure that anyone who’s ever moved anywhere can relate to the complex emotions and nostalgia that come up the first time you visit old stomping grounds. This time, though, I don’t think it was just reunions and old memories making me feel like an emotional live-wire during my trip.
There is something about the city of Portland that makes me feel alive, vibrant, driven, focused; incredibly creative and clear. There is a rawness to it, partially because of the people–the whole “Keep Portland Weird” unapologetic, creative, go-my-own-way attitude, which is called “hipster” by many, but which can have a certain authenticity to it depending on who wears it. But mostly I think it’s because the sheer environment of Portland–the 9 months of pure gray clouds and drizzle and cold and rain–gives you something to fight against. The sheer monotony of the weather produces the existential angst that hipsters are famous for, and the wind and rain make you want to go inside, drink a lot of beer, and come up with a lot of “really great ideas,” some of which might actually be awesome. Like maple bacon doughnuts and arcades for grownups.
I was chatting with my USC classmate Michael about this, and he had something similar to say about New York: “New York is a physical battle, and Los Angeles is a spiritual battle.” Hey, Los Angeles is freakin gorgeous, despite the fact that it is slightly colder than normal at the moment. Yes, it is a huge metro area of about 16 million people, and it has a notorious smog problem. But when you factor in fresh ocean breezes and the vast expanses of farmland around it, the air smells fresh and the city is spread out over almost 5,000 square miles. When you consider that New York has 9 million people in 300 square miles, it makes sense that the city vibe of Los Angeles is completely different.
To be honest though, it is pretty isolating. Los Angeles is a huge collection of little cities, and it takes conscious effort to leave your little bubble and engage with other parts of the city…or even other people, for that matter. There’s no common enemy to rally against in LA, no constant rain or fierce snowstorms or rogue werewolves or anything.
Well, I should say that there is no OBVIOUS common enemy, because as stated, it is spiritual warfare here. The deceptively fresh-smelling air and all that serotonin-inducing sunshine can mask or distract you from the fact that LA, like any industrial city, has major problems. There IS a smog problem, there IS a lot of crime, there IS socioeconomic stratification, there IS racism. All of those things, like, totally still exist, brah.* For the first months that I was living in LA I was living in Hollywood at an intersection where the transvestite ladies of the night peddled their wares, as they say, and other shady characters liked to conduct their business. I discovered that, on the drive to school, I could choose to drive up the road which was McDonald’s turf or the road that was Burger King turf, and either way I was driving past like 10 fast food burger joints on a 4 mile stretch of road. Eventually, it just starts to wear on you. This constant tension between the beautiful weather and scenery and this culturally repugnant undertone can create a kind of numbness, blurriness, ennui, or listlessness, which is a tougher enemy to fight. Instead of a down and dirty, in-the-trenches battle, it’s spiritual guerrilla warfare.
To be honest, though, at this point in my life I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love Portland–it is an inspiring place and I’m relieved to know that it is going strong and living the dream of the 90’s. But living in LA is a new kind of challenge, and it feels good to be part of the mucky soup that is American life right now, in the present. It really forces you to fight for what you believe in and how you want to live your life, because there are plenty of ways to live your life here. There is crazy wealth and crazy poverty, crazy consumerism and crazy hippies, and like 10,000 cultures from all over the world, all smushed together in this very American, fossil-fueled city. If you are not living your life intentionally and with conscious awareness, you will either become isolated or get swept up into something that’s not you.
So when it comes to Portland vs. LA, there is no clear winner. They are cities with good and bad like any other city, but the juicy part is fighting for however you want your life to be, no matter what kind of warfare you’re engaged in. And right now I feel like I am in the right battleground.
*Insert California accent here.