Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Quote of the Day...and Its Takeaway

"Travel is fatal to bigotry, prejudices and narrow-mindedness."
- Mark Twain

I can't just live in any small town. After everything I've learned living in the South (Virginia), the North (NYC)and the West (LA), as well as South and Central America (Argentina and Nicaragua), I know I can't live in an environment that is intolerant of people who are different, whether because of ethnicity, sexuality, religion or otherwise.

So for me, the right small town has to be one that satisfies the following equation: small-town friendliness + (a bit of ) big-city open mindedness = home.

My recent dates with Eureka Springs, AR, and Los Alamos, CA, suggest such a thing does exist. I see now that I am looking for a small town that enjoys some diversity of people and thought, as well as an infusion of well-traveled transplants and sojourners. Santa Fe comes to mind as a leading candidate in this vein. (I am working on scheduling our second date!)

Stay tuned as I use this filter to narrow down my geographical crushes. We'll see who makes the cut!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Have You Found "The One"?

According to a survey in this month's Outside Magazine, only 27% of readers report that they are living in their dream town. That means that 73% are, like me, still looking for it.

Similarly, the "city satisfaction poll" on my own blog (thanks to everyone who voted!) finds that 80% feel something less than "true love" when it comes to their current city. 40% state they are "enjoying themselves for now." 20% think "it's a mixed bag." 20% "know it isn't the one."

These numbers support a theory I've been tossing around. Compared to our parents, who may have worked at one company and lived in one home for decades, I believe we are a constitutionally itinerant generation and a product of our times. We change jobs and addresses frequently - sometimes by choice, sometimes not (i.e. layoffs).

We have less job security but a wider canvas for global job searching and opportunities. We have more career flexibility but also more concern with career fulfillment. We are both enthralled by the choices and daunted by the burdens that come with deciding how and where we ought to live. Thus, to me, it's no wonder it takes us a while to find a place we want to commit to.

One last thought. It seems I am not alone in thinking "the one" will be smaller. Outside's survey respondents (the majority of whom reside in cities of over 1 million people) voted that a population between 10,000 and 50,000 was the ideal size for a dream town. Runner-ups were 50,000-100,000 and 100,000-250,000.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Party Like It's 1889 in Los Alamos, CA

See my last post for the beginning of this tale.

The smallest village in the Santa Ynez Valley, Los Alamos (population 1,300) is the stagecoach stop that time forgot. It’s like the Old West frontier town you might see in a Disney theme park – but entirely authentic. (That is, barring the Chevron station.) The whole town, and I mean the whole town, comes together at the Steelhorse Lariat Saloon, complete with swinging Western doors and an excitable resident dog. I’ve never seen more of a true watering hole in my life.

Naturally, that is where we find ourselves after a day of wine tasting by limo. (What urbanites!) After our final tasting at Bedford Thompson in downtown Los Alamos (poured by the vintner himself, Stephan Bedford), we hear live music and follow it like a pied piper to the saloon. Next thing we know, people are buying us drinks, the girls are dancing on the bar, and the band (scheduled to end) is playing for three extra hours. New friends from their 20s to their 80s (yes, octogenarians!) help us cut a rug and set the town ablaze.

Somewhere along the way, we walk two blocks to American Flatbread and devour the best pizza I’ve ever had. You may have seen this organic brand in the freezer section at Whole Foods. They bake their amazing flatbread pizzas (made from all locally sourced ingredients) in Los Alamos, and on Fridays and Saturdays, open their facility as a restaurant. With its enlightened vibe, California-only wine list and community approach, I can’t get enough of the place.

Just as we’re finishing our to-die-for pizzas, Ron, the owner of The Steelhorse, pops in to let us know that a second band has shown up just for us. Aren’t we coming back? Dutifully, we return to party some more with cronies like Maxine, a white-haired hoot of an older lady (she's the one clapping in the right corner of the photo above), and Kate, a pretty twentysomething who moved back home to "hear the crickets."

Does this kind of experience happen in LA? No. Does it happen often in “Little LA,” as some jokingly call Los Alamos? Yes.

The other thing that gave me goose bumps was that I got an idea for a novel. After bonding with Kimberly, the caretaker of the Union Hotel, who lives in Room 23 full-time with her husband, I suddenly wanted to write a story set there. It would be full of vignettes about all the kooky characters (like, ahem, us) that pass through. Plus, the hotel (built 1880) itself is a character – think moving bookcases, hidden passageways and an eccentric former owner. No, I'm not making this up. Here's a shot of Dana, the current owner, showing us a sliding bookcase.

So the questions I'm now facing are: Is it about the history? Clearly, historic small towns are an aphrodisiac for me. Or is it the warmth of small town denizens – and the ability to connect with them so easily? Perhaps most importantly, could I get inspired creatively in a small town in a way that I simply can’t in the big city? That final question may be the most arousing of all.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How Low Can I Go? (Population-Wise, That Is)

A number of people have expressed skepticism about my ability to live in small town America (under 100,000 people), especially places as small as Eureka Springs, AR (under 5,000). I get it. I’ve spent the last decade in the two largest cities in the country (LA and NYC). I’m a foodie. A culture vulture. An EW subscriber. Wouldn’t you get bored, they ask? It’s a fair question. But I’m telling you – the signs just keep pointing me there. Signs like this one.

This past weekend, I went on a girls’ wine tasting trip to Santa Barbara, two hours north of LA. We made the fateful choice of staying at the historic Union Hotel in teeny tiny Los Alamos (even smaller than Eureka Springs!), and yet again, I felt a real tug. I know, I know. What’s going on with me? Blame the pastoral countryside, the colorful people and the beguiling juxtaposition of ruggedness (bikers, cowboys) and sophistication (winemakers, organic restaurants).

Tomorrow I’ll post a full account of my highly memorable date with Los Alamos. I’ll also try to deconstruct my growing obsession with historic small towns. (Yes, I think we are at the full-blown obsession stage. Paging the geographical Dr. Freud!)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Why Again Am I Living in LA?

The latest census numbers are in, and Los Angeles (my current home base) remains the second largest city in the US. First, of course, is New York (8.3 million people). Third is Chicago (2.8 million). Fourth and fifth are Houston and Phoenix (tied at 1.6 million).

When I think about living in such a gargantuan metropolis (3.8 million in the city, 11 million in the county), I sometimes wonder what I’m doing. I think about: the outrageous cost of real estate (as much as $1,000+/square foot in some areas), the traffic (especially the misery of getting anywhere at rush hour), the insane drivers, the stress, the noise, the crowds, the $12 cocktails, the (occasional) rudeness and the endless cycle of development and sprawl.

When I think about leaving LA for a smaller city, though, here are the things that give me a serious pang: the beach (including playing paddle tennis at Venice Beach), summer concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, the brilliant independent radio station KCRW, the amazing diversity (at seven million, LA County has the largest minority population in the US), the superb restaurants, the emphasis on healthy/eco-conscious living, the fact that all movies open here and, last but not least, the country’s best (and most seductive) climate.

Case in point: It’s sunny and 75 degrees today. I am not running the A/C, and it’s mid-July. So let’s be honest. Summer is not a good time to contemplate leaving. But I’m going to try.

The question is: What size city is right for me? Under 1 million? Under 500,00? Under 100,000? Despite our recent love affair, could I really live somewhere as small as Eureka Springs, Arkansas (2,300 people)? Could you? Stay tuned as I "size up" this key factor.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Potential Deal Breaker #2: Unreliable Internet

This entry is the second in a series. You can view Potential Deal Breaker #1 here, which can be summed up as "I don't want to die." Potential Deal Breaker #2? It can be summed up as "I don't want to lose all my clients and become destitute."

This one's a no-brainer for freelancers and telecommuters who have deadlines. It is also probably the only “absolute deal breaker” I have. To put it plainly, I must live somewhere with reliable high-speed Internet (which as I’ve now learned, requires continuous electricity). After all, my virtual office - and my livelihood - are dependent on it.

How dependent? Well, I use the Internet to speak with my clients (my business telephone number is an inexpensive, portable SkypeIn number that rings through to my laptop), IM/email with clients, send and receive electronic faxes, conduct research, fact-check, pay bills, produce monthly e-newsletters and submit writing assignments.

This is the deal breaker that put the kibosh on San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, where I lived for a few months in 2006. The Internet was passable (it was a rapidly developing tourist area), but the real problem was that the electricity was out several times a week due to rolling blackouts. Therefore, Internet was down several times a week, and always on an unpredictable schedule. Not workable, period.

So despite its rock bottom cost of living, much of the Third World is out, and I can’t go too rural even in the US. (Dial-up won’t cut it. I need to be close enough to a city to have DSL or cable Internet.)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Kiplinger's Best Cities to Live, Work and Play

We have another "Top Ten Places to Live" list to ponder, folks, and it's pretty surprising. For example, there's a city in Arkansas (!) on the list. So maybe I'm not crazy in thinking I could live there.

Kiplinger's criteria are interesting in that they skew towards "creativity" and "prosperity," and what they see as the inherent connection between the two. They write, "People in creative fields...are catalysts of vitality and livability in a city."

The full criteria include: population, population growth since 2000, percentage of workforce in the creative class, cost-of-living index, median household income and income growth since 2000. For all 2008 finalists, at least 30% of the workforce is part of the creative class.

Without further ado, here's their top 10 for 2008:

1. Houston, Texas
2. Raleigh, North Carolina
3. Omaha, Nebraska
4. Boise, Idaho
5. Colorado Springs, Colorado
6. Austin, Texas
7. Fayetteville, Arkansas
8. Sacramento, California
9. Des Moines, Iowa
10. Provo, Utah

None of these would have been obvious to me - other than Austin. That's also the only one I have an existing crush on. In fact, I felt initially repulsed by some of these choices, including Houston, their top pick.

So I'll give it to Kiplinger - they've certainly strayed from the perennial recommendations. I'll have to think about how important a large creative class is to me. As a writer, maybe it should be on my radar.

Read the full article here
, which includes virtual tours of all 10 cities.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

How'd You Like A Mandatory Four-Day Work Week?

Since July 4th falls on a Friday this year, we all get a nice, long, three-day weekend. But for employees of the state of Utah, every week is about to feel this short.

Utah has become the first state to implement a mandatory four-day work week for state employees - some 17,000 people. Call it a perfect storm of budget crunches, high gas prices, energy conservation initiatives and increased demand for flexible work schedules.

Utah's governor says his action will save money, make the state 20% more energy efficient and help with hiring. In particular, he says the four-day work week is popular among younger employees. He's right. I see my peers searching for not just a different work-life balance, but a different lifestyle all together. And it's not just people with kids. It's my generation as a whole. We just don't want the same grind.

So Utah may be the first, but it won't be the last. I predict that in a decade, half of all workers will be celebrating their independence from either commuting or a traditional work schedule.

Happy July 4th, everyone!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Back in the Big Bad City

I am back in LA...and having a bit of culture shock. It's surprising, given that I was only in Arkansas for two weeks. But I guess it shows just how much I'd slowed down.

Here's the perfect anecdote. I walk out of LAX and get into a cab. The cab driver seems a bit gruff, but I don't think much about it. That is, until he floors the gas, peels away from the curb and nearly causes collision number one. I exhale and grab the door handle. Once out of the airport, he begins driving even more aggressively. Weaving through lanes. Slamming brakes. Accelerating maniacally. "Can you slow down?" I ask. I emphasize that I am not in a rush. Apparently this is a foreign concept, however. It just doesn't register.

Soon we hit traffic (it's not rush hour - it's just LA), and he grows impatient. Next thing I know, he goes completely helter skelter and pulls out into the lane that's moving, coming THIS CLOSE to clipping an SUV. I cry, "Watch out!" The SUV driver yells and gestures angrily. The cabbie screams back. Profanity flies, a fight atmosphere erupts, and the two men nearly come to blows.

At this moment, I realize that in just 20 minutes of being back, my blood pressure has gone through the roof. I'm tense and irritable. Big-city irritable. How do I know? It's the same feeling I have every time a car alarm goes off or those damn leaf blowers turn on.

Fortunately, the beach is the antidote to everything I just described, and I will be there all July 4th weekend. Help is on the way!