Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Real Housewives of Orange County

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Open Letter to the Ridiculously Rich Homeowners of South Laguna Beach:

Every day, I meet your nannies when I take my kids to the park (I care for my own kids…how quaint). I see your housecleaners as they arrive every weekday, and I jog around your contractors’ trucks and your gardeners’ vans parked along the street when I exercise each morning (no elliptical for me). You, however, are an elusive species. You’re never in your manicured yards or on your spotless beaches or enjoying the views you pay so much for. Which makes me wonder: do you actually exist?

Maybe it’s all smoke and mirrors--or rather glass, concrete, and Spanish tile--like the Wizard of Oz: pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…

Maybe you’re too busy working to pay for all the above to actually enjoy it.

Or maybe I’m just unattractively bitter because I only visit this odd universe of privilege and palm trees a few weeks of the year, and have to clean my own kitchen while I‘m at it.

But I don’t think that’s it. Rather, I wonder if my frustration stems from the fact that this Orange County seems foreign to me, and it shouldn’t.

I was born here. My parents grew up here. My grandparents bought a house here in the early 1960s, because their parents lived here before them. Now that my sister and I have kids, we’re raising our fifth generation to live or vacation in this house. So despite the aspects of Southern California I don’t like (and there’s quite the list), I’ve felt a deep affinity for this over-priced stretch of real estate along the Orange County coast for as long as I can remember.

And it wasn’t always all nannies and BMWs. Once upon a time, it was empty space, modest beach houses, and emerald-green Pacific and little else. My grandmother’s house sits midway up a steep hill overlooking the ocean, and my mother remembers teaming up with her brothers to belt passing cars with oranges that littered the ground (what rotten children!). I grew up spending long summer days here. I recall climbing giant stalks of bamboo that bent enticingly from the bluffs to the beach until the soles of my feet bled (this was before they were considered an eyesore...the bamboo, not my feet). Every Labor Day weekend, the neighborhood association would host a community surf competition, and each Fourth of July, we’d climb onto my grandmother's shingled roof to watch fireworks over the Pacific, wincing as the backs of our sunburned legs made contact with the rough wood.

There are photos of me as a baby, happily investigating the sand, as a toddler, holding up abalone shells for inspection, and as a child, crashing into the surf, hair flying behind me, bleached blond from the sun. Now, there are new photos of my own children doing the same, posing just where I once posed…just where my mother once posed…in front of the Main Beach lifeguard stand (only the swimsuit styles differ), eating ice cream out on the patio, and playing Monopoly in the family room (this is my children’s current after-beach obsession).

We’ve been her about a week (having driven here from the Grand Canyon) with a few days remaining before we drive back home to Oregon, and much of what I remember from one visit to the next remains unchanged. We still get take-out from the same diner along the Pacific Coast Highway that we‘ve patronized for years. The garage is still cluttered with the same rusting beach chairs, and as we gather our things for the sand and surf each day, Nate reaches for the same faded orange boogie board I used when I was ten. The floorboards of the old house still creak in all the right places, and the roof is still the same thick wood shingle.

But one by one, most of the houses on the steep street have become remodeled from rambling bungalows to Tuscan look-alikes or sleek modern affairs as new, upwardly mobile owners buy them up for second homes, or else bulldoze them entirely, and it makes me melancholy. Is it too much to hope that if I squeeze my eyes very tight, and concentrate very hard, our particular 1950’s Laguna relic will remain unscathed?

After all: There’s no place like home…There’s no place like home…There’s no place like home…
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