SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- All this good health is killing me. Out there beneath the endless sun, entire squadrons of The Healthy Ones are swinging from gymnasium equipment like Johnny Weissmuller. On tar strips along the back end of the beach, they're pedaling bicycles, riding skates, endless armies of the sleek all the way down to Venice Beach, some of the skaters pushing baby strollers, others with cell phones at their ears as they whiz along, looking like refugees from a burning city, all of 'em determined, in the best New Age fashion, to live forever or die trying.
And me, I'm roughing it up by the pool, reclined on a chaise longue, carrying out the traditional East Coast version of a middle-aged man's exercise: seeing how much liquid refreshment I can slip past my lips in a single afternoon of heavy lifting.
What am I, the only guy in California with a slightly noticeable (I use the term discreetly) belly? There's a skater out there with Old Testament skin who's got to be 80 years old -- or maybe he's 35, but he looks 80 from all those hours in a Speedo swimsuit under the broiling sun -- and even he hasn't got a trace of a gut.
I have come to Southern California because I have never been here before. Actually, I have never previously been farther west than Ohio. Who knew there was civilization beyond Cleveland? I always heard that all people entering the state of California had to first check their brains, and their library cards, at the border.
And then, I was informed, all worldly cares would be left behind. The sheer beauty of the place would rock your remaining brain power to sleep, would seduce you away from all East Coast edginess, would make you want to live forever.
The nine-mile drive from Los Angeles Airport to Santa Monica looks like home -- Ritchie Highway, to be precise, before they built Route 97 and took the worst of the killer traffic jams out of Glen Burnie. Then, once you get past California's taco stands, fruit juice stands, gas stations and tattoo parlors and hit the beach, there's the famous (they tell me) Santa Monica Pier.
It's an amusement park.
And I tell you, without the slightest exaggeration, that it could not hold a candle to Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in its salad days.
Did somebody mention salad? It's what everybody eats out here. We go to an Italian restaurant, which I normally associate with the joys of pasta, and there's 37 different avocado salads. Our waiter turns out to be an aspiring actor. Now, what are the odds on such a thing in Southern California? He says he's just waiting tables until he gets discovered like Lana Turner at Schwab's Drug Store.
"Have you been in anything?" my wife asks.
He looks like Jeff Goldblum and mentions a soap opera where he got six weeks of work.
"But you wouldn't remember me," he says. "I was dressed in drag."
"Oh," says my wife. "Are there well-known actors who ever come in here? You know, not in drag?"
Things are not going well in the celebrity-spotting department, the mother lode being the moment when my wife spotted Ben Stein strolling around Beverly Hills one afternoon. She's looking for somebody to make the heart beat a little faster than a guy whose biggest movie moment was saying, "Bueller ... Bueller," to a bunch of drooling high school kids in the opening minute of Ferris Bueller's Day Off a long time ago.
If we can't see somebody really famous, we'd at least like to tell the folks back in Baltimore that we saw somebody who once saw somebody.
"Actually," says our waiter, "Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were here."
"Were they nice?"
"They sat at a table in a little corner and smoked cigarettes all night."
Great! Now we can tell people we saw somebody who saw Somebody Else smoking cigarettes! That's entertainment!
It's what life out here is all about: secondhand glitter, and everybody trying to get famous, or trying to look tanned and sleek enough to get famous in case the right miracle comes along.
Like our waiter. A nicer guy you couldn't imagine. Except that around here, I never met so many polite people in my entire life. You bump into somebody, they can't apologize enough. Back east, they're saying, "Yuh muthuh." Out here, they're wishing you a happy life.
Call me crazy, but I need a little edge, a little conflict. It lets me know I'm alive. In California, people seem to be running from such things, smoothing things out, making them mellow. "I don't like mellow," Woody Allen once said. "If I get mellow, I ripen, and then I rot."
They say California adds 10 years to a person's life. Me, I'm gonna spend my extra 10 back home.