“I thought I was really changing my life when I went out to California. Of course, now it sort of feels like a dream. But at the time, it felt so real.”
— Pete Campbell, Mad Men
I’ve had one recurring dream over the last decade. The elevator pitch version goes like this:
I leave my lifelong East Coast existence, and I move to San Francisco. Usually, the reason for relocation is a work opportunity. On occasion, in classic Rom-Com style, I follow a guy. Regardless of its transitional origin, the dream always begins, and remains, in San Francisco. No teary-eyed plane flight out of New York City. No spectacular cross-country road trip expedition. I am simply there. In my new life. In California.
My subconscious tends to take creative license with our current state of technological advancement, as I find myself in a sleek futuristic office — hearkening both Minority Report and The Jetsons — where I’ve yet to master opening doors via retina scan. Clearly, I have taken a job in Silicon Valley. Or, I am standing in a pop-art colored office, heatedly debating my coworkers about a new ad campaign, wondering if this native Manhattanite has what it takes to be a creative director in San Francisco. Or, I am driving in my car, utterly lost, petrified my vehicle will roll backwards down a hill while the Golden Gate Bridge collapses on top of me. (Those who live in San Francisco will forgive my geographical and cultural faux pas, as I’ve never once stepped foot in the Bay Area, despite my subconscious insistence that I belong there).
Curiously, for the past calendar year, these erstwhile bedtime reveries have fervently invaded my conscious waking hours. And what better way to honor my destined daydreams than to give a digital shout out to all the tech companies tracking my every movement and desire? Google knows I’ve repeatedly mapped the quest from the Atlantic to the Pacific, debating which is the lesser of two evils for a solitary automobile traveler: a mountainous terrain or an arid desert? Airbnb is fully aware of my penchant for modern cottages in Santa Cruz and Boho-chic cabins in Scotts Valley. And I’ve clicked on so many graphic designer job listings in San Francisco that LinkedIn now sends me daily recommended employment opportunities at monoliths like Facebook, Apple, and Adobe, and gaming companies like Discord, Twitch, and Crunchyroll, making me muse if I’d need to dress like a college student or an anime character for any given interview.
Earlier this summer, sitting in my sweltering car in a concrete parking lot, the door open just enough for air, overwhelmed and crying about my life, the tipping point being a series of medical results that shocked me into a surrealist state of PTSD, I captured the attention of a college friend on a chat app. She’s been a world-wide jetsetter for the last couple of years due to her rise in professional stature. It’s not unusual to see her social posts announce she’s flying first class to Austria with better food and blankets than I currently have in my own home, hanging in the cockpit with the pilot as a special treat just for VIP flyers, and days later lounging in her 100th floor Dubai hotel room with custom chocolates molded precisely to her facial image. She overarchingly wins the most interesting Facebook feed of anyone I know.
Nonetheless, on that unbearably oppressive summer afternoon, too exhausted to even lift myself out of the driver’s seat and into the nearby air-conditioned coffee shop, I scrolled anxiously through my phone to find a trusted comrade online, to quell the gnawing pain, isolation, and sadness inside me, even if just for a moment. Relieved to see the little green Messenger dot next to my fancy friend, I pinged her. “Hi. Help!” (Twenty years ago, she was my college RA. Ten years ago, she was my Manhattan roommate. She’s accustomed to these type of SOS signals from me).
Typing one frantic message after another, I explained to her everything that was wrong. My job. My work. My finances. My health. My housing. My relationship…. especially my relationship with a semi-romantically inclined man who lived not too far from my own mid-Atlantic zip code. My friend attempted to bolster my spirits and instill hope that everything else in my life can still change for the better. But she firmly advised that I end it with the gentleman, straight away, because this particular story line always has a tragic final chapter.
I emphatically texted her back, “No! I can’t! I’m moving to California! It will be easier to move to California than to say goodbye to him while I still live here.”
She replied, “But, is it now?”
Is it easier to move to California than break up with someone who actually isn’t a bad person, nor cruel in any way, but who circumstantially and situationally is not right for me, right here, right now?
Is it easier to move to California than to deal with my declining health and to accept the life (and the body) that has been granted to me?
Is it easier to move to California than to face the bins of unopened mail, the bills I cannot pay, the passport I forgot to renew, the health insurance I don’t have, the legal documents I’ve yet to file, the phone calls I’ve been putting off, and the storage units that need emptying in two different states?
My friend advised me to really think about this. To consider the process of moving somewhere I’ve never even visited, driving alone cross country, finding an affordable and safe place to live, meeting new people, sourcing new services, building another local network, starting everything again, bit by bit, somewhere totally foreign, at the age of 41. She of all people knows such a reality. She does this practically every day.
Part of me says, “Yes. It is easier.” But that part only exists in the wishful recesses of my fanciful mind, often conjured in nighttime trances. It’s the part of me — of all of us, really — that’s connected to the glory of escapism, the potential of new beginnings, the salvation of somewhere other… somewhere “anywhere but here.”
The consummate California Dream is so embedded in our culture and ethos that it really is at core the American Dream. Our national identity is intrinsically wound up in the ideal that we can hitch a ride to freedom on miles of outstretched highways, or that we can leave on a jet plane not knowing when we’ll be back again. It’s this romanticized notion that life is easier “over there,” wherever “there” is. And that vision becomes a lot easier on the eyes and the soul when its landscapes evoke both billowing palm trees and opportunity aplenty.
There’s a certain magical realism about it all — that we can leave our troubles behind, and start again somewhere far more beautiful, prosperous and brighter, and that everything will not only be ok, it will be extraordinary. California has quite a history of grandiose promises. A sack of gold for every miner. A pool for every homeowner. An IPO for every incubator start-up.
Our fictional counterparts have yearned and fought for this same ambitious liberation over centuries since America’s founding. It’s Huck’s adventurous ride on a raft down a river. It’s Gatsby’s posh parties, colorful shirts, and his Daisy. It’s Kerouac’s lyrical beat on Route 66. Even Don Draper and his crew set up a second shop in 1960’s Los Angeles, offering Mad Men viewers hazy wanderings through dream-like sequences, which somehow felt “off” or simply unreal. But of course Don was lured to California. How could he not be? The embodiment of a powerful mythmaker, he also wanted to be anywhere other than himself.
The problem is, of course, that we cannot change the “here” that perpetually resides within ourselves, no matter where we go. That interior geography stays put, even if you’re wandering a hilly sidewalk 3,000 miles from home, meeting gentle people with flowers in their hair. Time and again, we witness and experience the hollow pain of this dream bubble bursting, when the starkness and bleakness of reality overtakes illusion. It’s the death of Miller’s salesman; It’s Williams’ shattered menagerie and dashed hopes of a gentleman caller; it’s Martha and George’s imaginary child that Albee baited us to believe was real. Even Gatsby got lost staring at the green light at the end of his dock. Dreams do have a way of being rather foggy. It makes us not see so clearly, particularly if we do not want, nor choose to do so.
Why psychotherapists stay in business is evidenced by the following: despite all of this, I have continued to make westward-bound proclamations at least once a week. Such that my mother, the eternal voice of logical pronouncements, has recently taken to remarking, “But, Alison. California is burning.”
Yes. California is burning.
California is also plunging into an industrial-mandated darkness and disconnection, with an overpowered electrical company flipping their master switch at whim, as if to say: curtain down, theater’s empty, show’s over guys, time to return home.
Or maybe, time to wake up.
Is our existential longing to escape ourselves so strong, that it’s possible to still dream about running away to California, even when that means running directly into flames? Does this make me an unlikely optimist? Or a fantasist?
Despite years of clever tourism marketing, the current visual representation of the California dream is a fiery nightmare instead. Not to mention, for years, news reports have been citing mounting housing costs, apocalyptic natural disasters, and astronomical numbers of homeless in the golden state. What happened to our promised land of sunshine and orange trees where anyone can catch a wave and sit on top of the world? Or were The Beach Boys dreaming too?
A popular 1966 song by the Mamas & the Papas presented an idealized expectation of exactly this paradise. Despite its oft-spoken literal interpretation, the lyrics may also portend a metaphorical California dream. Aren’t we all perpetually taking a walk on a symbolic winter’s day, over leaves of brown, under skies of grey? Aren’t we all longing for a place that’s safe and warm? We collectively and individually need a California dream to keep going. Because if we lose that, where will we be?