My husband invited me to dinner last week. He made reservations at the finest restaurant in our neck of the woods: a white tablecloth sort of place, with a dining terrace positioned for viewing unobscured sunsets over the Pacific Ocean and designed for lovers anticipating the night. At last! Having the older kids in college and our youngest occupied with homework opened a small window of opportunity: a long-overdue date night for just the two of us.
I became nearly giddy at the prospect of having a reason to dress up. My closet is a testament to sophisticated sensibilities and the social whirl, full of specifically sought-out pieces for the cultured, urban life. And just as my dancing mind began a delightful choreography for beautiful clothing, important jewelry and sexy shoes, my darling man uttered those three little words, “Remember, it’s casual.”
Talk about killing the moment. But the truth is, he knew I needed a reminder that there is no dress code for southern California. By west coast standards, we’re always overdressed.
When our son wore his brass-buttoned navy blazer to an Episcopal service on Sunday (with jeans instead of khakis—our version of casual), he may as well have had “east coast” stamped on his forehead. His father and I sported an embarrassment of propriety. Out here, people wear shorts to church and no one thinks a thing about it.
I am becoming more comfortable with the informality, but it’s the nonchalance that gets to me. The latter seems to permeate everything, leaching into a mindset that easily turns an important event into a non-event, including our arrival in this lovely neighborhood during the early days of August.
Our second move in a year, to a new house in a far better school district about 20 miles north but still within the city limits, has been a positive one for the most part. But like our former San Diego neighborhood, this residential area is a ghost town. I have not met, and seldom see, a single one of our neighbors. There are familiar cars in the driveways and barking dogs behind overly manicured fencing. Doors slam, conversations reverberate off stucco walls, children splash in their backyard pools. But human contact? Nada.
The fact that we are new to the block is meaningless to the families on either side of us, taking a casual attitude to the level of blatant disregard. In a land of transients and newcomers, the notion of neighborhood as community is easily lost. But what about good manners? What about curiosity? Many things that matter elsewhere just don’t matter here.
I think the local atmospheric conditions have a lot to do with this air of placidity. We live in a climate that makes no daily demands on its inhabitants. It is mind-numbingly sunny and temperate nearly every day of the year. Vacation weather. Vacation wardrobe. Relaxed rules. And an awful lot of people seem to like that.
Summer bleeds into autumn — but I know that only from the calendar, not from observing the natural world. There is no sense of urgency because there are no seasons. No squirrels gathering nuts, no frost on the pumpkin, no firewood to be chopped. I don’t have to buy a fall or winter wardrobe or even an umbrella.
Freedom and sunshine. California’s compelling combination naturally produced West Coast casual.
My friends in North Carolina have said, “Oh, I hear San Diego has perfect weather!” When I pose the question to others, “What brought you to Southern California?” the answer inevitably is, “The weather/” And the day I told one of my dearest friends in New York that we were moving from Raleigh to San Diego, his response was, “Great! It never rains there. Now we’ll visit you!” I even know the song in their heads.
I can’t help but wonder what kind of person believes that weather is a reason to pick up stakes, abandon family and friends, and turn a blind eye to personal history? It seems a shallow magnet to me.
How does one measure the passage of time when there are no seasons? How does one define the day when there is no weather? How does one feel special when every day is casual day? Oh, I long for the perfect excuse for indoor activity: that elusive stormy day. I would welcome torrential rains, lightening and thunder all deliciously hurling their insults. Then, free from the guilt of ignoring the sunshine, I could escape into the cavern of deep introspection, read a favorite book in my favorite chair and renew my soul in the company of cleansing rain.
My father understands my longing for seasons. Today I received in the mail two beautiful red leaves from the dogwood tree outside his kitchen window. Proof that autumn has come to North Carolina.
I didn’t move here for the sunny days, but I have made good use of them. I didn’t arrive dressed for the west, but I’ve learned to relax the rules. And this is a different sort of season, for me and for my husband.
When I push past all these ruminations and focus on the simplest things, what’s left is perfectly clear: waking up to sunshine is a happy way to start each day, and watching the sun set over the Pacific with the man you love is the perfect way to end it.
Ainslie Jones Uhl is a freelance writer/editor and photographer. A native North Carolinian and former New Yorker, she holds a B.A. in English from Sweet Briar College and a Master of International Business from the University of South Carolina. She recently relocated to San Diego, Calif., with her husband of 26 years and their four children. From now on, The Compass Rose will appear monthly at WVFC, as Uhl reflects on Southern California, her family and her heart.