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In Populous City Pent

from the magazine

In Populous City Pent

Los Angeles Diarist Autumn 2015
Arts and Culture

I don’t like cities much and yet, for my sins, I’ve spent a lot of my lifetime in them. A year in San Francisco, ten years in Manhattan off and on, a year in Boston, seven years in London—and now, after 15 sweet summers in a suburban Southern California paradise, I’ve moved to Los Angeles. Again, for my sins.

My sins, if you’re wondering, are ambition and a will that grows weak under the tyranny of convenience. There are things I want to accomplish, and cities make them easier. Still, urban life has never suited me. My eyes find their natural rest on rolling hills and open fields. I’m nowhere more at peace than in a forest. I want to notice the moon at night, what phase it’s in, how light it makes the darkness. I want the weather to matter.

And more. I’m a religious man. I find it easier to pray where I can see the grass grow. Maybe that’s a failure of imagination, but I don’t think so. Thirty years ago, I lived for a while in a cottage on the edge of a forest preserve in Bedford, New York. When my writing was done for the day, I would put a fishing pole over my shoulder and tromp down through the woods to the reservoir at the bottom of the gorge. Sometimes streams burbled as I passed under the heavy green canopy. Sometimes my footsteps crunched and the canopy was all pastels. There were days when the woods were virgin white with snow and the nearby falls froze into a crystal palace. Once, when I was fishing, a rainbow arced suddenly above the water and a wedge of geese flew beneath it toward the newly risen moon. So yes, I found it easier to pray.

But I left. I moved down to Manhattan. In Manhattan, there was no direction you could turn where there wasn’t another human in your eye-line. The noise was so bad that I couldn’t hear what my young kids were saying from way down near the ground, where they lived. And there was nothing to do but look at stuff: movies, plays, pictures in museums. You just sat; just looked.

It was many years before I could leave the city again. When I did, I went to Montecito in Southern California, on that odd little stretch where the coastline turns so that the ocean is to the south instead of the west. Temperatures are in the 70s all year long. It seems to rain only at night, like in the song about Camelot. The scenery—mountains on one side, ocean on the other, red-tiled rooftops in between—is second only to the Swiss Alps in beauty. When I moved away, a friend joked that God would place an angel with a flaming sword at the city’s east to keep me from returning—as if I were Adam leaving Eden, you know. And while we’re on the subject of Paradise Lost, I moved away knowing that I would once again be “long in populous city pent.”

But I did move away—eagerly, almost desperately. Down to a city famous for traffic jams, pollution, and preening gazillionaire narcissists who need an entourage just to carry their egos. What was I thinking? I was thinking exactly the same thing as when I left Bedford: there are things I want to do.

Thirty years ago, in Manhattan, I could walk to my job writing radio news and come home in time to work on my novel, then run downtown to pick up the book I was supposed to review for the newspaper, then stop off to visit my publisher and still get back to the apartment before my children went to bed. I was ambitious. I was weak before the tyranny of convenience. My sins.

And now? I write in the mornings, then jump into the car and drive to the studios to pitch my new TV idea. I can land a movie job at lunch, head over to the Valley to record my podcast or one of my YouTube videos, and still get back to my work space in time to blog and tweet in the late afternoon.

It’s bliss. Just like Manhattan was back in the day. It’s thrilling beyond words. I wake up every morning crackling with life. Sure, I miss paradise, but this is where the action is. I imagine Adam said pretty much the same.

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