California Dreamin' 

Make Mine a Nightmare

Tammie Painter

© Copyright 2009 by Tammie Painter


Photo of a crowded California Beach.

Experiencing the SoCal beach scene isn't all it's cracked up to be, especially if you're used to the laid back Oregon Coast.

Growing up in Oregon, the Coast (yes, we capitalize it) was always an easy destination for a day or week.  You took a bundle of clothes never knowing if the weather would be sunny and bright, rainy and windy, or both – possibly at the same time.  Beaches were never crowded even in the most heavily touristed towns on the nicest of days.  The atmosphere brimmed over with simple fun and getting back to nature.  Quaint shops full of trinkets and antiques lined the understated streets.  The lowliest café featured fresh seafood and much needed treats and sweets.  Swathed in rain jackets or sweaters there were no bathing beauties or feelings of self-consciousness.  Everyone looked the same – pale, cold, and happy to be battling through whatever nature threw at us.  We gladly collected agates with chilled fingers and, once our feet were properly numbed by the cold Pacific, we waded in the surf until primal pain told us to get out and head up to dry land for a hoppy microbrew.  Despite loving the beach and walking along the shore, television ads pounded into our heads the point to never turn your back on the ocean.  They reminded us it was a rough and angry beast not meant for swimming in and it only existed to capture and drag you into its cold, deadly embrace.

So when I married one of the most reviled creatures to an Oregonian – otherwise known as a Southern Californian – I was strangely fascinated by this creature’s odd desire to willingly go into the scary world of the Pacific Ocean for fun.  Fun?  Didn’t he know this was the monster that sent sneaker waves to gobble up old ladies?  Despite trying to warn him of the evils of that body of water, he would lumber off in flippered feet and goggled eyes with board in hand then jump in.  What a strange creature indeed.  This was a species raised to see the ocean as a playground and to view its waves not as stampeding horses ready to trample you to the ground, but as moving hills to glide over, dive under, and enjoy.

The inevitable day came when he wanted me to visit the beach world of Southern California.  I held no pre-conceived notions on that first trip.  I assumed many there were as insane as him, but other than that they must be normal people, right?  Wrong.  The beach we stayed near seemed simple and pleasant although steep with a strong enough riptide to keep me in my proper Oregonian place – wading along the water’s edge.  I witnessed my first sighting of a mythical beast I thought only existed in movies: the beach lifeguard.  There it was in all its glory looking exactly like all the tales describe – tan, blonde, decked in red shorts, with a strong upper body.  Although the shops weren’t as quaint as in Oregon, the restaurants mostly chain establishments with trucked in food, and not a microbrewery to be found, so far my impression of the SoCal beach scene wasn’t terrible.

That was until we hit the main beach.  The sight of so many people crowding one little beach scared me.  It felt something similar to being trapped in the middle of a herd of cattle.  Except these weren’t cattle, these were more creatures I believed didn’t exist.  When you see them in magazines you tell yourself people like that don’t exist in the real world.  No one is that perfect, no one is that perfectly tanned, no one has that little body fat and still fills out their bikini top.  But here they were.  Hundreds of them.  Blonde and beautiful California girls.  I saw then why the Beach Boys and David Lee Roth sung their praises.  These were the inspiration for numerous eating disorders and inferiority complexes.  And they knew it.  This wasn’t a place to have fun and look for shells.  This was a place to show off how nice their hair was and how cellulite-free their legs were.  This was not a place for me.  Beaches to me should be a place to relax, a place to get wet and gritty, a place to pull back your hair, not spend an hour fixing it beforehand.  This was the land of pretentious perfection.

It isn’t to say Oregonians don’t have their fair share of pretensions.  We hop on fixed gears with no brakes trying to emulate the bike messenger chic, we’re excessively proud of our rain barrels and recycling bins, and Priuses rule the road.  But we don’t take it to the level of the SoCal beach scene.  There, all is on display and that display better be picture perfect or you will be stared down and laughed at (unfortunately, I’m not making this up).  Beauty shops line the streets to maintain the beauty minimum I believe must be written into the city code.  Interspersed between the liposuction and botox clinics are tanning salons.  Tanning salons?  These are cities that receive only about nine inches of rain a year, why are there tanning salons?  These creatures fully baffled me with their ways.

So when preparing for our vacation this year I begged my husband not to make me go back to the world of the Southern California beach.  I didn’t want to face the attitude and felt myself nowhere near the standard necessary to fit in with the body beautiful of the beach babes down there.  But he is a lover of warm waters and we were in the area for his parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary so kicking and screaming I conceded never once letting him forget my displeasure over the matter.

Travel writers often face the problem of wanting to tell everyone about some wonderful place they’ve discovered, but at the same time not wanting it to be overrun and spoiled by tourists.  Southern California’s beach towns will never have this problem.  There is no fear of revealing an undiscovered spot or worrying that Starbucks and The Gap will invade.  The spoilage happened years ago.  There’s no discovery, there’s only the witness of what we’ve done and what we’ve become.  My first day in my second SoCal beach land the pretty people were all around, no riptide had sucked them out to sea to be sacrificed to the Coppertone gods, and, although I’m not overweight by Oregon definition, the pretty people turned around and laughed at me on the street.  I returned to the vacation rental in tears and hating this strange land.

My husband then took me to the beach his parents took him and his brothers to as children.  This was where he learned his strange oceanic love and developed the notion it was okay to jump into the beastly Pacific for fun.  There was a different vibe here.  This beach seemed more about family time than beauty pageant preparation.  I could almost enjoy it except it was the most crowded beach I’d ever seen.  I commented on how many people there were.  Humans lined the stretch of sand from one end to the other.  It looked more like a mosaic of colorful towels and tents than a beach.  My husband’s reply: “This isn’t crowded.”  Was he kidding?  At the Oregon Coast it’s a busy day when you pass more than five people on your explorations, but here the press of humanity couldn’t be avoided - especially when the group in front of you includes two slightly overweight men in European boy shorts and as they bend over the thought screams through your head that only a few millimeters of cloth separate you from the unpleasant and unwanted sight of hairy avocadoes.

I sit and watch, still retaining my paranoia of what the ocean can do.  The mounds of human flesh are so close it feels like a scene from a nature documentary where hundreds of sea lions heap on rocky outcrops to rest.  The bodies here seem more normal and I feel the self-consciousness slipping away into my own judgments of body size and shape.  As my husband frolics in his watery playground, I watch pigeons pecking away at any scrap left in the sand like little avian Hoovers.  Indian families tease me by pulling out dining necessities and I’m waiting to be hit by the lovely smell of curry and naan, but instead they cruelly unveil a Pizza Hut box.  Next to me an overweight child who will need to drop the pounds if she is to be accepted into this beach world, whines to her father as she shoves Doritoes into her mouth.  I wonder how many times she’s faced the laughter of the pretty people.

As the clouds roll in the weather is still what at the Oregon Coast would be considered pleasant.  But here the herds begin to pack up.  The irony of this mass exodus is that most of these groups upon arrival spent anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes setting up various forms of man-made shade – tents, umbrellas, canopies, or all of the above – but now that the entire beach is shaded they don’t want to be here.  The behavior isn’t any odder than anything else I’ve seen from these creatures.  Instead of trying to understand I enjoy the sense of peace and elbow room I expect from a beach.

It’s difficult going into another culture especially when you love your own.  In most places the locals want to share their world and are proud of what they have to offer, but in SoCal you receive the constant feeling of being an uninvited guest at a party.  A party where everyone is in formals and tuxes and no one warned you to change out of your t-shirt and jeans.  The best I can manage in the SoCal beach world is to find a spot with some cheap yet tasty food – often where English is barely spoken and the people are inviting rather than rejecting - to hit the beaches early in the morning when the pretty people are beginning their hour-long ritual of dressing for the beach, and to visit the Oregon Coast as soon as I can upon my return to restore my idea of how a day at the beach should be – full of respectful fear of a powerful body of water, accepting the lack of feeling in my extremities, and not knowing whether the person up ahead in the GoreTex is beautiful or not, but that if they are they won’t laugh at me for being myself at the beach.

Tammie Painter is an aspiring writer whose work has been accepted by Oregon Coast Magazine, I Love Cats, Outdoors NW, and powderroomgraffitti,com among others.  She loves to travel anywhere other than California.

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