For those less familiar with the plot thus far, let me recap. I was born on the Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio, but spent most of my childhood in two small towns in Arkansas. When I finished college and law school in Arkansas, I took a job in Dallas. Within four years, my firm got involved in a large case in Los Angeles, which prompted me to take the California bar in 1988, and begin commuting between Dallas and Los Angeles. For some nether group of years, I lived in Dallas, but spent half of my time on business travel in California. Soon after my marriage at thirty, my "half in this place, half in this place" lifestyle seemed less optimum. Not long thereafter, though, an upcoming trial in Los Angeles caused my firm to move us out to Los Angeles for a six month assignment. In the way that these things often happen, the "three hour tour" turned into years, and we ultimately moved to Los Angeles. All told, we stayed about a decade in the Los Angeles area, finally buying a little house up in the foothills in the tiny Crescenta Valley, adjacent to the Angeles National Forest.
Although I knew Los Angeles quite well when we first moved there, and my wife had lived there many years, we found the first several years of living there relatively difficult. We moved from a nice house in the suburbs in Dallas to a pink stucco apartment complex in Los Angeles. In Dallas, homes in the suburbs are rather like cars and furniture--they're not cheap, but anyone in the middle class can have one without undue strain. My own home had cost less than $ 80,000. By contrast, when we were ready to look at homes to buy in Los Angeles, the modest stucco neighborhoods of the gloried workers' housing built for defense industry workers just after the Second World War cost in excess of $ 300,000. The sticker shock was very frustrating to me. I rather grandiosely thought that I'd achieved every success I could reasonably be expected to achieve, and yet could not have a house to live in. In addition, California had a myriad of shortcomings to my way of thinking--impossible to get a good chicken fried steak, good barbecue, too long to drive to go hiking, "forests" based on four foot high bushes called "chapparal" instead of tall trees, and urban areas which were so crowded, and the southern California brand of friendliness, which was a good bit more glib than the Texan brand to which I was more accustomed.
I learned, though, that ultimately in Los Angeles, there is not "one" Los Angeles. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Los Angeles County micro-neighborhoods and hundreds of micro-climates. The media in and about Los Angeles tends to focus only on events that happen in the suburbs and neighborhoods west of Beverly Hills. The alternative press in and about Los Angeles brags that it draws this line differently, but in fact, it tends to focus on the neighborhoods around Silver Lake, Hollywood, and Echo Park. Thus, one has to learn about all the other Los Angeles places pretty much on one's own. Fortunately, though, somebody in an on line forum on Compuserve for which I was a bulletin board moderator about Calfornia issues asked where would be a nice place in the Los Angeles area to rent. I called a local realtor for him to find out the price of rental homes in the La Canada/La Crescenta area. The realtor told me a rental price for a little home which was available. The rental price was exactly the rental amount we were paying for a mere apartment. My wife was temping or free lancing something flexible then, so we sent her out to see the house. Soon she'd found a place she wanted us to rent. We moved to the the Crescenta Valley, we made new friends, found new hiking trails with trees, got active in a church, and, in short, the Heavens opened and we were admitted to Paradise. We ultimately bought a home from which we could see the mountains in front of us and behind us, sitting on our back patio table while hummingbirds flew by. Our realtor and her husband became friends. We were very happy there.
For Thanksgiving, we began to stay in town for the holidays, after an experience in which TWA required some sixteen hours to get us boarded and flown for a three hour flight to Missouri. We got up in the early morning, and headed twenty minutes into the Angeles National Forest. We walked the Clear Creek Trail, a brisk forty minute round trip on a non-strenuous path which led down a mountain through "elven forest", little trees six feet high, to a flowing creek, and back up again. The weather in a given year could be fifty degrees or ninety degrees, but it was always a nice hike. Then we'd have a charming lunch. I like family Thanksgivings,but for some reason, my ideal Thanksgiving meal has always been to go to a nice restaurant where folks "do for you". We went each year to the Flintridge Inn, a wonderful place where we ate in quiet unpretentious luxury, and I had roast duck or salmon each year. We had a membership at Descanso Gardens, this wonderful public garden with a camellia tree forest that bloomed all winter. On Thanksgiving weekend, a huge gingko biloba tree would shed its golden leaves, almost cinematically.
As the years went on, though, we wondered if Los Angeles was really our lifelong destination. We were so far from family, which made a big difference when my wife's mother became ill. My senior partner began to discuss retirement, and at that time I did not have enough business of my own to support a law practice in expensive Los Angeles. Although we found La Crescenta, where we lived, entirely congenial, there is no question that Los Angeles is a very difficult place to live. Our house payment was so high that I will not put it on this public forum, as it will make me seem much better off than we actually were at that time. People literally sacrified all their activities in order to own a home. Although Los Angeles folks are surprisingly nice for such a large city, the "everyone is a visitor, nobody really lives here" feel about Los Angeles is a stereotype with a ring of truth in it. There was a daily "urban stress" to Los Angeles,whether it be in aggressive panhandlers or bumper to bumper traffic in the high density population neighborhoods. We missed our families.
Still, I was reasonably happy, tucking into my Thanksgiving duck,
when my wife turned to me and said "I don't want to die in Los Angeles". Let's skip over the fact that neither of us planned to die for many, many decades. I took her point immediately. We had actually discussed moving before, but deferred it for a year because my wife got a really plum school teaching assignment. Within a few moments, we were resolved--although my wife and I could not put assemble a piece of slot-in-peg IKEA furniture together to save our lives (we are both very much eldest children, as if that matters), we are very good at making "big" decisions like city and housing and autos and money matters and the like. We moved from "shall we move" to "how do we get it done" within moments.
We set up a range of acceptable cities--Kansas City, Tulsa, Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Little Rock, and so forth--all places we knew, which were near enough to family. Then I began job hunting in those places. I had some interviews and some bites for other interviews, but in general, once one has been in practice more than fifteen years or so, one needs to look at setting up one's own firm. While in Texas on one job interview, I stopped off and saw an old friend and former partner whose firm had dissolved recently. I brought with me pro formas and budgets for a potential new little two man law firm. My conviction was that we could have a firm in which we helped 'real people' and still made enough money upon which to live. More importantly, we could avoid all the politics which practicing law in our past firms had involved. We first met on the February after that Thanksgiving meal, by April, we were vigorously planning, and by July 1, we had the doors open on our new office. Although we had budgeted not to make a material profit for a few years, we turned a profit by the thirty first day, and have always made a nice living, although one relatively modest by the standards of past "downtown law firm" days. We are both happy we did this, and wonder why we did not do it before. Meanwhile, my wife, disenchanted with teaching, returned to her prior profession of writing and editing. She took a technical writer job, and is now finishing up her first two year contract.
You'd think that coming "home" to a place like the Dallas area after ten years away would be returning to just what I left. But in fact, many things changed, for better and for worse. Here's the ten things that are better:
1. We elected to live in Collin County, Dallas' odd northern Republican high tech county. We were pleased to see that Collin County has become far more diverse than in prior times. Our neighborhood could be a southern California neighborhood, with folks from all ethnic groups living in harmony.
2. Ethnic restaurants have also expanded to the suburbs, so we are not, as in the old days, stuck with chains.
3. Dallas has finally gotten a light rail system installed. We haven't really used it yet,but it's good to know it's there.
4. It's great to be back where barbecue is omnipresent, cheap and tastes heavenly. It's also good to be back near Furr's cafeteria.
Barbecue chains have expanded their numbers and influence, to my eternal delight.
5. The major freeways here seem to all have been widened and improved, and they even put in a tollway named after the first President Bush which takes me most places I need to go, and yet has very little traffic.
6. Although the Collin County cities tended to focus more on parkland than many (Collin County will do almost anything to attract corporate headquarters, and for some reason parks rank right up there), the number of nice places to take a walk has increased since I left this area. You can see the effects of good environmental laws--hawks and owls and birds of all types abound.
7. I love practicing in a cool, older suburb instead of trudging downtown.
8. Owning your own firm means never having to say you're sorry for wearing business casual.
9. There's no longer such a division among kids between "rednecks", "punks", "normal kids", "jocks" and "born agains" as there once was (we'll omit the story of the 15 year old outside my blockbuster with the Siouxsie Sioux look last weekend), but instead seem to have settled in the main into a sort of geeky cool median.
10. Whereas the Collin County stereotype was that adults tended to break down into high tech Ward Cleavers and high tech gamers,
in fact, we've found lots of kindred spirits with a variety of interests since we've been back.
We've never regretted moving back here. But some things did change in a negative way. Let's list a few of those out:
1. Although homes here were much less expensive than in southern California, they were much less affordable than when we left. We ended up opting for a commute, in order to drive the price down some.
2. Luby's cafeteria has largely closed here--the last few went down soon after we moved here.
3. when we left, Laura Miller was this strident journalist for the local alternative paper, writing exposes that were not always fair but were sometimes right on target. Now she is mayor of Dallas, one of those "not in my backyard" councilpeople who runs as a Republican despite some liberal leanings so that she can get elected, and who spends her time making speeches about how tough she is on other politicians rather than actually making positive change for the city. She's an improvement, I suppose, on the "hand-picked" candidates which the Dallas elite usually put in as mayor, except for the fact that the "hand-picked" guys were apparently better at getting potholes filled.
4. I know I am old now. One nice thing about Texas was that kids were educated to be polite. But southern California manners have infected the Texas landscape. I cringe when some 17 year old behind a counter calls me "guy" or "fella", instead of "sir". On paper, I know that I should not be picky, but I am not this kid's "guy" or "fella". I was raised to call everyone "sir" or "ma'am" that was over the age of 18 or so, and I follow that maxim with all but friends to this day. Call me old-fashioned, but instead perhaps just call me southern.
5. When I left Dallas, it was a sports-obsessed town, but the sports analysis, though omnipresent, tended to be professional.
Now it is all negativity and idiocy. I used to be a big sports fan, but sports radio has almost cured me.
6. When I left Dallas, the radio airwaves, though filled with conservatives, were not filled with ethnic slurs and sexist humor.
Now it seems to have become acceptable to make turban jokes and "she asked for it" humor. The older, civic-minded "we don't want much government but let's do what little we have right" conservatism has given way to a "if they ain't like us they can go to hell" malignant form.
7. Consumer fraud seems to be way up, at the same time as consumer laws have been diluted and consumer law enforcement reduced.
8. Every cool piece of creek bottom woodland in Garland seems to have a "for sale--zoned commercial" sign in front of it.
9. KNON, which was a wonderful alternative radio station when I left, is all but marginalized now. KERA, the local public radio, is a good talk radio station, but has almost no good music. If it weren't for KNTU, the jazz station up in Denton, this would seem like a radio wasteland, which is odd, because Dallas used to be a musical mecca. Live music has not fared as badly, but the wonderful original music club scene has faded, as Deep Ellum has managed to both gentrify AND fade, and the Greenville clubs are more places to have a beer now. Thank Heaven for the Bronco Bowl, Uncle Calvin's and Bill's Record Store.
10. Although it's still strong in some suburbs, the Dallas area continues to lose some of its Texas flavor. When I first moved here in 1984, kids from the northeast, economic refugees, said they "loved Dallas but hate Texas". I am of the opposite camp.
I love Texas, with its agrarian liberals, its "how are YEW doin'" store clerks, and its easy pace of life. As time goes on, though, Dallas is homogenizing further into one big TV viewing wasteland.
I never thought so many things could change for good or bad while I was gone. But I suppose it does keep life interesting.