Published March 2010
I have always had mixed emotions about Orange County. Few spots are as blessed with such obvious beauty and so much livability. Yet, for nearly three decades, from the moment I got to California, I’ve tried to keep my distance. Unsuccessfully.
Orange County was why I came here. The newspaper job for which I relocated in 1983 required me to be here for at least 40 hours a week. How can you hold a place at arm’s length when someone is paying you to get up close and personal with it?
But I was a kid in my 20s; I had my street cred to consider. Everybody knew that Orange County was a wasteland of Birchers and televangelists and homogenous tract houses. If my young eyes saw a more interesting picture, I wasn’t about to apply the information to my own life. I’d work here, but, as God was my witness, I wouldn’t live here. (I’d show ’em—I’d live in Long Beach!) No way was I going to be personally associated with an address this embarrassing.
Time passed. Jobs and addresses changed. And I became what I imagined to be an L.A. sort of woman. But somehow I kept ending up back here. One of the natural laws of California is that even when things are far away, they’re still connected; though I’d yet to receive mail here, I had somehow accumulated a complex apparatus of local relationships and networks, a big orange tangle of heartstrings and memories.
There was South Coast Plaza, where I first had lunch with the man who would become my husband, and the little cottage in Corona del Mar where he lived. The guest room in Santa Ana, where my friends Louis and Kris put me up a number of times after one too many mango margaritas. The award-winning middle school in Irvine, where my sister Erin was a teacher. The Fun Zone on Balboa Island, where we spent so many vacations. The Brea Mall, where our oldest daughter spent so much of her adolescence that she could probably find Nordstrom in her sleep.
How could I deny a place with so much of me in it? But I did. When my husband was promoted to a job here in the mid-’90s, I lobbied against moving to the county. When an East Coast editor referred to Orange County as “L.A.’s Long Island,” I snickered. Never mind that you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the Whittier street where we lived then and a cul-de-sac in La Habra. Or that I had grown up in the East and long since decided that nothing in California was remotely like Long Island. I just couldn’t be more than friends with O.C.
My reasons were subjective: Places to me are like people—I just don’t find them sexy if they’re too clean. Although Orange County now is as worldly as any place in California, there’s still a residual tolerance for intolerance that makes me hope I never fall on hard times here. Plus, maybe just because it takes a sinner to know one, I don’t trust communities that seem too interested in morality.
When another job moved us to the Bay Area, though, I found myself rethinking Orange County. Don’t get me wrong—there are reasons people keep leaving their hearts in San Francisco. But you’d be surprised at how good this place looks from there on a lousy day. Fogbound, I’d dream of its beaches. Gridlocked, I’d pine for its parking. Hemmed in by tourist traps and time warps, I’d envy its space and its Darwinian newness.
By the time our work drew us south again in 2005, I was softened up enough to relocate, and open enough to remember how much I had always loved Laguna Beach.
So now, I finally live in Orange County, a place that, for better or worse, turns out to be, well, as much a part of me now as San Francisco and L.A. And the other day, an out-of-town friend—a kid in her 20s— asked how I liked it.
“It’s complicated,” I said, smiling.
“Well,” she replied, “all the best relationships are, aren’t they?”