Fare Thee well, Golden Coast
NOTE: The following post is a bit different than my typical pieces here. You won’t find any talk about war, which is just crazy! 🙂 However, my husband and I are packing up to leave California and start a new chapter in our lives. Our personal histories are important too, and I wanted to pay a bit of tribute to that big step and give California a proper farewell salute. I hope you all enjoy it!
On February 3 of 2009, the city of Los Angeles got a new resident. A twenty-four-year-old hopeful who was searching for something. A lot of things, actually. I’d say one of the biggest things was nicer weather. Those Iowa winters had done me in, and I longed for sunny, salty ocean breezes, warmer days, and palm trees. Lots and lots of palm trees. Palm trees that, no matter how many years I’ve lived here, I always smile at the sight of them.
But I wanted other things too. A career, for example. I graduated from University of Iowa in 2007. I had started there as a journalism student, but the film classes I took “just for fun” ended up turning my head. I’ll never forget the sly little smile on my professor’s face when I talked to him after class one day, and he said, “I give it two weeks.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Two weeks before I fail?”
He grinned. “Two weeks before you change your major.”
It took less than that actually. By that weekend, I had already spoken to my academic advisor and changed my major to Cinema and Comparative Literature. To this day I’m not sure how my parents felt about that. Movie making and entertainment doesn’t exactly scream “lucrative career” that will help someone pay back their mountains of student loans (but I managed that eventually). Certainly no one else in our family majored in anything like that. But I did quite well in film school, especially the screenwriting and producing classes.
But what I really wanted to do when I moved to Los Angeles was write. It’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do. All my life, I was always scratching out something at the small writing desk in my bedroom. Poems, short stories, scary stories, and yes, screenplays too. I guess I didn’t feel like I fit into the world I was born into, so I found a lot of comfort in worlds I created myself. Especially stories that took place in distant time periods. I’ve always been a bit of an old soul. Some of my best friends in school were my teachers. I felt more at home around my grandpa and his old war buddies than I did the kids my own age.
And Los Angeles is a vortex for people like me. The whole place kind of feels like the island of misfit toys. So many people come here because they don’t really fit in anywhere else, and it gives the place an energy that’s hard to beat. It’s one of the things I will always love about this city. One of the things that will be the hardest to leave behind.
So what exactly did I find in this crazy city – one of the craziest, loudest, most crowded, and most expensive in the country? For starters, I found friends. Life-long friends. My first was a grumpy old World War II vet named Dan (get to know him by clicking here). We went to church every Sunday and bonded over sarcasm and witty sermon commentary.
I met some friends my own age too. Girlfriends who taught this tough-talking historical tomboy the delights of a little bit of girl bonding. We went out and tore up the town together some nights, other nights we just stayed in, sipped cocktails, drooled over pretty shoes we couldn’t afford and complained about men. Although most of those fine women have now moved on to other cities and places in the world, our bond is still tight and we still talk often. On the Zoom nowadays, since that’s all the Pandemic rage. Sometimes, when there isn’t a pandemic, we even manage to visit each other – in Seattle, in London, in Switzerland.
I found family too, adding some branches to the M.B. Henry tree. The husband gets top billing. I had to work my way through some real bone-headed boyfriends to find him. We worked together on an off for about five years before I looked at him one day, really looked at him, and said to myself – “dang. There’s some husband material.” At a party in Big Bear, underneath a sky filled with gorgeous stars, my husband-to-be told me he’d liked me since the day we met. A romance was born. We got engaged just over a year later, married about a year and a half after that.
Los Angeles also made me a bona fide cat lady. The first came from my husband (boyfriend at the time), who brought her home from the shelter as a surprise. Probably one of the few times I have ever been legitimately surprised in my life. We had gone looking together, and when I met this particular cat, she flopped on her side, let me scratch her tummy, and that was it. But as I was going through a rough patch in my career, I couldn’t quite cover the adoption fee. A few days later I went home after a grueling day at work, and my soon-to-be-husband came out of the bedroom with that cat cradled in his arms. We named her Cher-Ami, but she goes by Kitty now. Nine years later, she’s woven into the fabric of our lives. I really can’t imagine a day without Kitty’s whining for playtime or her insanely loud snuggle purrs. She’s just going to have to live forever I guess.
More feline friends joined our nest. When my friend Dan had to go into assisted living, he couldn’t bear the thought of his cat going to the shelter, so my husband and I took him in. Cat Cat was um… a unique experience. He didn’t get along with Kitty and he peed all over our furniture whenever he was scared, upset, lonely, or just too damn lazy to walk over to his stupid litter box. But you know what? He was also the most affectionate cat you could imagine. You could pick him up and cradle him like a baby and he would snuggle up and fall asleep in your arms. Even when getting his nails trimmed, he purred and nuzzled instead of pitching a fit. The sweetest cat, even if a bit troubled. He got cancer in 2019, and we helped him gently over the Rainbow Bridge later that year. I sang “Castle on a Cloud” from Les Miserables while he breathed his last.
Our most recent fur baby addition is the lovable Sergeant Stubby – coyote fight/shelter survivor and hair-chewer with a half-tail and a bit of a skittish streak about him. Understandable, I guess. He’s been with us for a year and a half and he’s getting more and more comfortable (and chunky). And more demanding for pets. I barely plop my butt on the sofa before he’s on me like white on rice, ramming his head under my hand so I’m forced to at least give his ears a scratch. I worry about uprooting him for a move, but I think as long as his mommy and daddy are around to feed him and scratch his bum he’ll adjust.
I also found a career in Los Angeles, but not quite in the way I thought I would. I did the whole film thing for a while, but it never quite satisfied me. It can be a brutal profession, if I’m honest. The hours are insanely long, you spend a good deal of them on your feet, and film sets do attract a lot of large egos who don’t always treat people very nicely. However, I also met loads of charming, lovely people who were just trying to make a bit of difference in the world. Some of my best times in California were on film sets, along with some of my worst.
While I worked on film sets to pay the bills, I also dabbled in screenwriting. I was convinced I wanted to be a movie writer, or maybe a writer on a television series. I cranked out a good half-dozen scripts or so but none of them went anywhere. I submitted to contests, rubbed elbows with a few professional writers, and even worked in a TV writers office as an assistant to try and get a leg up. No matter how hard I worked though, it never really fit. I couldn’t break in. And to tell you the truth, my scripts didn’t feel like they were very good. They always felt a bit… well, empty.
I discovered novel writing when I tried to write a screenplay about World War II. For those of you who don’t know me, this is a subject close to my heart. And as a screenwriter, it’s your job to make a blue print only. You can weave some feelings in, but the bulk of that is up to actors and directors. The realization slowly dawned on me that this is why I wasn’t much good at screenwriting. I can’t separate my emotions from my writing. I bleed too hard for that. When I tried this World War II story as a novel, it came out of me like a rushing river. A new career ambition was born. Several rewrites and rejection letters later, I am now an agented author and I am hopeful the book deal will come soon.
Friends, a husband, cats, and a career. In addition to those biggies, Los Angeles also infused me with a restless sense of adventure. A travel itch that never fully gets scratched (and that a pandemic has left utterly devastated). I also honed my photography skills, since California has ample natural beauty and places to practice (find some great examples here, here, here, and here). And wine. In my twelve years in the Golden Grape State, my pallet advanced from Trader Joe’s Two-Buck-Chuck to the finest California Pinot Noirs. Then there are the avocados. Seriously you guys, avocados.
So, in light of all the wonderful things I found here, why are we leaving? Well, the high cost of housing is a big reason. My husband and I can’t wrap our heads around sinking seven to nine hundred thousand dollars into a one-bedroom “fixer upper” in the middle of fire country. Even condos in the right neighborhood can go for six to eight hundred thousand.
But I think our exit plans have deeper roots. Yes, we’ve had a wonderful time here, but over the years, I’ve come to view Los Angeles as a bit like a purgatory with palm trees. It’s great for people who are young, figuring themselves out, trying to find things. It’s also the best place for anyone who wants to make it in movies. However, it’s not as easy on those of us who want some quiet and have a growing urge to put down roots. To slow down and breathe. Many families live here and are perfectly content, but my husband and I wanted a bit more. A bit more open road. A bit more fresh air and thunderstorms. A bit more yard space.
Most importantly, we wanted a bit more family nearby. We’re both from the Midwest. Living far away was all well and good when we could hop on a plane if we got lonely. The pandemic taught us that we won’t always have that luxury. As we get older, we want to spend more time with the people we love, and watch our twenty-one (yes, you read that right) nieces and nephews grow up.
While we came to this realization, we watched my husband’s family complete their renovations on a truly remarkable 120-year-old house in Indiana, near the charming town of Valparaiso. The more we saw of that house, the more we fell in love with it. Puzzle pieces started slipping into place as we thought about buying that house. There’s still some questions, mind you. Like how the hell I’m going to handle winter after twelve years of California sun. But I know we’ll adjust. Because that house had our names on it. The second we bought it, it felt like it was always ours. It felt like home.
California was pretty good to us. It’s true that we had some terrible downs along with the ups, but on the whole it was an amazing chapter. But it’s time for us to leave our palm tree purgatory, and make space for the up-and-coming youngsters traveling here to find themselves. We will miss it, but we will be back to visit. And we will always have our memories.
So farewell, California. Be good to that next generation. They need you.
On that note, I’m taking the month of March off the blog to get us moved and settled into our new house and home state. Visits to all of your blogs will resume in April. In the meantime, you can follow along with our cross-country drive and moving adventures (including Kitty and Stubby’s first road trip!) on Instagram, handle @mbhenry1985.