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In praise of Mayberry, and why I left LA

My mission to find the best place to raise my child

From out of the big city into the Rappahannock River

Raising my son in Los Angeles I often felt like he was in a terrarium. Even though we lived a mile from Beverly Hills city limits, in a decent neighborhood, the reality of living in a big city meant I had to always be concerned about my son’s safety. At parks or outside our house, the rule was he had to stay within hearing and seeing distance. When we were at home, I had to restrict him to the confines of our small walled-in backyard or the front courtyard, where I could keep an eye on him at all times.

I am not paranoid. The dangers were real. At our upscale address, we experienced plenty of crime first hand. For instance, we were burglarized a half a dozen times in 14 years — including daytime burglaries in which windows were broken and the house turned upside down; our trash was looted regularly, resulting in me being a victim of identity thief; we had a volatile neighbor with a drug problem, whom my son witnessed being hauled off in a straitjacket after a particularly bad bender; parts were stolen off our cars; our garage doors were graffitied several times; and on occasion we had drug-addled derelict people sleeping on our back stoop.

My bathroom window after being broken and entered by an intruder – the eight burglary I experienced in LA

Don’t get me wrong, I like LA. I choose to move there in 1998, after a tragic year in which my beloved brother died after a battle with pancreatic cancer. My brother had encouraged me to follow my dreams of working in the film industry and reaching my creative potential. He willed me all the money he had, which wasn’t a great fortune, but it was enough to back me up in case finding a new job in LA took a couple of months.  

As I came to realize that all the clichés about LA were coming true – the phoniness of people and falseness of “what’s-in-it-for-me” friendships, the ruthlessness and treachery in the entertainment business – and any sort of business, and the shallowness of the culture obsessed with money, power, beauty and fame, I still loved LA.

Me hanging with Ricki Lake after a taping of her former show

I had heard many “Only in LA” stories before I lived there, and as the years passed, I accumulated my own library of them; such as the come-on by the raunchy D-list producer who lured me unwittingly into a criminal enterprise; the seemingly upstanding physician who concealed a drug addiction and then conned me out of my brother’s inheritance (just before dying while scuba diving, high on fentanyl, in the Maldives); the friend-of-a-friend who faked leukemia to gain sympathy (and money) from my group of friends and then disappeared when we found her out; the client who confided to me her vision that shape-shifting aliens lived among us and were scheming to enslave the human race; and I could go on.

I ignored the bad, didn’t believe it, excused it, worked around it, and sometimes even successfully overcame it. I did make a few good, quality friends, to whom I remain tightly connected, for life, but there came a time when enough was enough.

Last summer I packed my bags again, and I moved back East, to my home state of Virginia. The big difference this time in living more far afield from Washington, D.C., where I grew up. I am now in Warrenton, Virginia, 40 miles from the District border, and a world away from LA.

People will say that it’s just the same in DC as it is in LA, and perhaps that’s true to a degree. There’s no dispute that the world of politics is full of power-hungry mountebanks, which is why DC is sometimes referred to as “Hollywood for ugly people.” But just 40 miles from the District line, I have landed in a real-life Mayberry, the idyllic small town where Ron Howard’s “Opie” learned the difference between good and bad, and always chose to do the right thing.

It’s true, there are gossips, scoundrels, crooks and other bad people everywhere, but here in my new rural hometown, they are few and far between, perhaps owing to the fact that, in general, people are few and far between, as are stores, gas stations, banks, and other signs of civilization. In fact, I must drive six miles to the nearest market, but then again, six miles is six minutes by car, as opposed to a half an hour, which it would take to travel that distance in LA.

An actual sign from the general store a few miles from our house

After nearly two decades of creeping at 5 miles per hour through LA traffic, I feel practically giddy when I hit the wide-open roads of western Fauquier County, with 70-mile-per-hour speed limits, where I can drive for stretches of 20 miles without braking – imagining my 2005 Lexus as a horse let out of the stable after years of confinement. 

But there is much more to embrace about Virginia living than the country roads, such as the good manners of both children, and adults. My first school volunteer experience of an ice cream social encapsulated this politeness. While some of the parents doled out skimpy scoops of ice cream, others piled heaping scoops in the children’s bowls, but none of the children complained, or even noticed. At my son’s former school, where often the children and their parents vociferously expressed their entitlement, such inequity would have sparked a riot.

By comparison, in LA once a father went into a tirade because his son was served a s’more made with a Hershey’s chocolate bar at school “camp-in.” He grabbed the candy from his son with disgust, stating, “My son only eats Ghirardelli.” This is a true story.

Thankfully, I have found that sarcasm, cynicism and snark are not spoken in Fauquier — and even the homonymic irony of the county’s namesake is lost on its residents, though I often get a chuckle when talk-to-text transcribes it differently, inserting an f-bomb where none was intended. Most of the time I enjoy the “say-what-you-mean, mean-what-you-say” communication of the locals, though I admit sometimes I feel a twinge of disappointment when I anticipate a well-timed satirical sneer that doesn’t come, like a joke with a flat punchline.

Most folks in these parts adhere to the favorite Southernism, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Of course, there are always exceptions, which I have noted among the proverbial church ladies, who are often liberal with another favorite Southern saw, “Bless her heart,” which makes just about any insult sound like a sympathetic statement, i.e., “Goodness she is ugly, bless her heart.”

I am not asking for a medal for it, but certainly I have made compromises and sacrifices, big and small, by moving to the boondocks. My steakhouse options have been reduced to Longhorn and Outback. Thank heavens for Wegman’s, a touch of sophistication in my grocery shopping experience, where the associates can pretentiously talk about the cheeses with descriptors like “brawny, with a flutter of asparagus,” just like in Whole Foods in Beverly Hills.

I also miss “only-in-LA” experiences, and making fun of LA. I fondly recall the series of ads for the LA County Fair, where a gaggle of girls shopping at a Rodeo Drive boutique opine whether cashmere and wool from the girl or boy cow, to which the announcer voice over narrates, “If there’s any place that could use a county fair, its LA.”

Speaking of a county fair, that was one of the first events I attended after moving back to Virginia. As I sat in the bleachers engulfed in certainly toxic smoke watching the demolition derby surrounded by cheering country folk, I wondered, “What am I doing here?” But I have to admit the bizarre spectacle of junk cars smashing into each other in a mud pit was entertaining, at least for the first five minutes.

My son running from a donkey at the local farmer’s market 

It is a fact there are fewer options for diversion in my new hometown. Likewise, there are fewer opportunities for people to screw each other over. I had gotten my fill of that brand of amusement, and so here I find myself in the sleepy, quiet surrounds of the countryside, appreciating the serenity, yet still yearning for some excitement.

Sometimes I think I was wired more for the frenzy of the big city, and I miss that adrenalin rush I got in LA that primed me for action; and other times I appreciate of the calm of the country and that fact that people are actually nice, and going places and doing things is easy, away from the city.

After one year living here, I still feel like a city person living in the country, and sometimes I hate it; but I stay, for now at least, for many reasons. As I watch my son run out to play, and I see the kids’ bikes lying scattered in the front yard, and the neighborhood kids call me “ma’am,” I have no doubt that moving here is good for my son. As for me, it’s like a bitter medicine. I long for the stimulation of LA, but here I don’t have to worry about so many things, and I know the calmness and realness here is good for me, at the soul level.

We live this life but once, and it’s hard to know what is the best way to do it. I am taking my cues from my son’s relaxed demeanor, which undeniably shows that life away from the city suits him. He is my canary in a coal mine. Here, in the countryside, we can breathe, and we can run, and my son can live that tranquil and simple life that the folks of the fictional Mayberry lived.

My hope is that he will grow up happy and centered, and that he will learn good values and he will lead a life of integrity. And if one day he chooses to move to the city, he will at least be a country boy at heart, in the very best way.

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