How to Be Healthy in Los Angeles

A meditation, with screaming parrots

Photo: Sara Benincasa

AA flock of feral, red-crown parrots zooms around northeast Los Angeles and Pasadena. Now and then, they settle in for a couple of days on a hill near my apartment. They scream in terrifyingly human voices. They are very, very loud.

There are all sort of stories about the original group from which these green-bodied alarm clocks descended: They escaped from an exotic bird preserve in Alhambra, California during a storm. They were all purchased from the fancy bird shop on Glendale Boulevard in Atwater Village by some animal rights activist and released at Occidental College. They flew away from an obsessive collector… and so on.

My favorite origin story is the one where a few individual renegade pets broke free of their housebound misery and, somehow, found each other. They clustered together, started reproducing, and multiplied.

To me, it’s the most plausible story. This city is full of creatures who’ve escaped their cages and don’t know how to act. Then they have kids who don’t know how to act, either, and then those kids have kids. This is true for parrots and for people. Call it intergenerational trauma. Call it ancestral eccentricity. This is where we come to work it out, or not.

II came to L.A. after several years as a stand-up comedian in New York, after a stint teaching high school in the Southwest, after a stint going to school in Asheville, after a stint going to a different school in Boston, and after 18 years in New Jersey. I rarely teach or perform comedy these days. I have not, as yet, produced offspring in human or parrot form.

What I do in Los Angeles is this: I write in a one-bedroom apartment. I take conference calls on speaker phone, occasionally interrupted by a shrieking parrot gang.

A group of parrots is called a pandemonium. This feels important.

Sometimes, I leave this apartment for meetings or social occasions or business trips, and then I come back. I don’t have a washing machine or dryer, but I do have a dishwasher. I don’t have a television, but I do have a laptop computer and reliable Wi-Fi. And now, I have a larger, electricity-fueled object that anchors my living room.

Around the world, other people with internet-equipped bicycles to nowhere can pedal along with me to a live video of very fit individuals shouting at us, laughing at us, and singing to us.

Recently, two young men put together a stationary bicycle that sits beside my writing desk. It is hooked up to the internet, through the air, and I can ride it to nowhere whenever I please. Around the world, other people with internet-equipped bicycles to nowhere can pedal along with me to a live video of very fit individuals shouting at us, laughing at us, and singing to us. I can measure my progress against these strangers, or not.

Alternately, I can choose to watch recorded video footage simulating a ride to somewhere — from one end of a national park trail to another, or over a bridge in a foreign country, or along the beach in some exotic locale.

I was informed by other internet people that while the music in the traditional classes is delightful, the music to the simulated rides through nature is “not great.” I was encouraged to play my own music instead. This means Janelle Monáe can beam the entirety of her Dirty Computer album directly into my ear canals as I pretend to bicycle past very large boulders, or palm trees, or a Great Lake. I’m not sure which Great Lake yet. Perhaps all of them. I must review the options.

I ordered the bicycle to nowhere because my wealthier and fitter friends liked it, because the payment plan was quite reasonable, and because I need to exercise. You see, I’m really just not the gym type. I do not like being coached. I do not like group fitness classes. I do not like personal training, though I have worked with some very nice personal trainers. I am not particularly coordinated. I get anxious. I get scared. I get emotional. I get nauseous. Sometimes it feels like I’m about to have a panic attack. Sometimes I do have a panic attack.

There is a trend where people go to dance class or kickboxing class or intermittent-aerobic-coordinated-perineum choreography class and set their phone up to record videos of their exploits. Then they put those videos on the internet, usually on Instagram. I like when my friends do this because I am proud of them for working hard and having fun, while doing something that scares me.

But when I see strangers do this, the thing where they record themselves at the Cardio Reiki Club for Yoga Asses or whatever, I am less charitable. I always think of the people in class who don’t know the camera is going.

My mind’s eye takes the point of view of an iPhone camera. I imagine footage of me in such a class somewhere amidst the 439 square miles of land that comprise the city of Los Angeles, red-faced, out of breath, nauseous from exertion, and haplessly jabbing away at the air or kicking something invisible, rolls of abdominal fat very much in play.

Then I see the camera.

Slowly at first, but then faster, I advance toward the phone until my face contorts into unimaginable rage and I let out a blood-boiling shriek. The phone’s owner, who is invariably extremely good at all the EDM-fueled JazzerKegels, notices me and yells in protest as I snatch up the phone. She is seen running up behind me when the camera goes shaky and wild. A crimson spray coats the lens. The last sound we hear before the video cuts out is her death scream. To me, it sounds like a victory.

Like I said, I’m really just not the gym type.

YYou’re supposed to walk if you’re not the gym type. You don’t have to run. Walking is great for you, and easier on the knees. I live in a place with wonderful weather year-round. Fire season is a pain in the ass, as the air quality plunges to hell every now and again, but those days are relatively few. It rains sometimes but it does stop, and one can walk quite happily and briskly under an umbrella, or while wearing rain gear. I could do that, but I don’t.

There’s a hill near my house that I looked at nearly every day after I moved here, and every day I thought, That will be difficult to walk up. I’ll be out of breath. I don’t like driving up it. The visibility is poor. There’s no sidewalk. If the parrots are there, they might yell at me. But I should get up every morning and walk up that hill and down the other side and then back again, because that’s the sort of thing healthy people do.

Throughout my life, I’ve made these internal pronouncements rather frequently, the ones about what healthy people do. A list from recent years is as follows:

Healthy people do yoga as soon as they wake up every single morning. They use a weighted hula hoop whenever the spirit moves them, which is often. They join a cheap gym and go and make friends and fall in love and that’s how they avoid joining dating apps ever again.

They have one (1) glass of biodynamic red wine per day. They cook all their own food themselves and it’s always organic. They grow all kinds of herbs and vegetables in their indoor containers and community garden plots and they are happier as a result.

It can be hard, can’t it, to decide what is good for oneself and what is not good for oneself?

They do not swear ever. They swear as often as they like. They are vegans. They are vegetarians. They are omnivores. They never eat sugar. They eat sugar in moderation. They go to church and join a faith-based fitness group and do jumping jacks for Jesus. They make friends with other atheists who hike. They never take antidepressants. They always take antidepressants.

They live close to their families. They live far away from their families. They focus entirely on paying off debt and everything else comes second to that. They never think about money and just trust that God will pay their bills in due time.

They have a skin care regimen. They make their own makeup with a mortar and pestle and all-natural ingredients. They have a pizza stone. They have a blender. They have a slow cooker. They have a spiralizer. They eschew the company of men except when absolutely necessary. They live out in the country. They ride horses. They rescue pit bulls. They hike. They smoke lots of weed. They smoke zero weed. They do ayahuasca to heal their internalized, inborn, intergenerational trauma. They do not use the internet.

ItIt can be hard, can’t it, to decide what is good for oneself and what is not good for oneself? There is a version of that sentence where “what” is replaced by “who,” or perhaps it’s “whom” — I quit my job as a high school English teacher long ago and have deliberately forgotten some of the rules.

Last year I determined that alcohol was not good for me, and I stopped drinking it. I continue to not drink it. I have a lot of help in this regard, some human, some perhaps supernatural, all of it welcome and good. I am grateful. I am learning. I am trying every day. The bicycle to nowhere was my present to myself for hitting a significant milestone. I suspect I’m actually going to enjoy it, but time shall tell.

Having too much stuff is not good for me. Marie Kondo and I are in agreement on that. It’s unsurprising that she recently began selling overpriced garbage nobody needs via her online store, but capitalism is a hell of a drug and I’m as hooked as she is. It’s hard for me to look down upon a successful housewares or snake oil salesperson immediately after admitting I purchased a video-viewing machine with wheels.

Having too many people is not good for me, in the general vicinity of my undercarriage or otherwise. It is probably not good for you either, though as with lovers, some do better with a lot of friends and other do better with just a few. A parting of the ways is often a very good thing, though it may pain you at times. This is true with family members, as well.

Pruning is good. It’s healthy. Cut away the dead stuff so that new growth can emerge, Lord willing, and the creek don’t rise. Or maybe nothing replaces what is gone but the plant thrives. That’s a blessing.

It is easier to wrestle with things, as they don’t often talk back. I have whittled my collection of books down to that which fills one tall bookcase which, like my writing desk, my coffee table, my bed, and my bedside table, was built from scrap wood by the employees of a lady who grew up in Northern California, in the part of the state where they grow grapes and Twitters.

The bookcase anchors my living room. I haven’t read all of the books. I should stop buying new books until I read all the ones I’ve got, but I know that won’t happen. My mother was a librarian. I feel better when books are around.

TThe other night I was too tired to sleep and too tired to focus on a book, so I brought the garbage and recycling down to the cans. I walked out to the street and I looked both ways. I saw the hill and I remembered that I wanted to write an essay.

“I’m going to conquer that hill,” I said to myself, resolutely. “It’ll be a good image to include in an essay.”

And so my legs carried me down the street, and I smiled at the little houses at night, and the painted virgins of Guadalupe on the sides of buildings, and the soothing noises from the bigger thoroughfare not far away. I came to an intersection, looked both ways again, and started up the hill.

What a journey this would be. What effort this would take. What a fine metaphor for doing hard things and then gazing around, happy and blessed, exhausted but proud. Throw in something about goddess archetypes, the Blessed Mother, and yes. That’s good. Time to tackle that hill. It’s been more than a year. I can do this, but it’s gonna be tough.

And then, to my surprise — it was so fucking easy.

I did not work very hard because the hill really wasn’t that steep. At no point did I say, “I must stop!” only to hear the voice of God or Our Lady say, “Keep going, my child.” I strolled up the hill and was slightly winded, and strolled down the other side and all the way to the end of that street, and then I went back up the hill. Nothing dramatic or emotionally transformative had happened.

Sometimes the brain, accustomed to years of chaos, creates more chaos to keep the pain party going.

I looked up a little side street that winds off the hill up higher in elevation, but it was poorly lit and I am a woman, so I decided to skip it. I believe in divine intervention, but I also believe in dangerous men. And I’ve seen more of what they do.

I went down the hill to where I’d begun. I was fine. It was all fine.

“I cannot hang an essay on this,” I said to myself.

SSometimes the brain, accustomed to years of chaos, creates more chaos to keep the pain party going. Unfamiliar with peace and quiet, the mind tries to kick up some shit. There can be an anxiety about getting healthier: What if it all goes away? What if I lose the progress I’ve made? What if this newer life is only temporary, and I can’t hang onto it?

I know I will lose loved ones through an accident or illness. I know that in California, natural and man-made disasters can and do strike at any moment. I have an earthquake kit for a reason. And yeah, those things scare me. But here’s what scares me more: What if I can’t come back from small backslides and fuckups and find the path of trying, day in and day out, to do better and be better? What then?

I know the answer: Keep coming back to what works. And keep going.

II said goodbye to the hill and walked down a different street, a flat one dotted with churches. I passed a church parking lot, and saw a creature about ten yards away. I thought it was a coyote but it was a big, wolfish-looking pet dog on a leash that trailed into the darkness. I could not tell if the dog was untethered or had escaped. It looked at me, and I looked at it, and I kept moving, wondering if I should go back and see if it was okay, or call somebody.

I walked to the church and crossed the street and came back down the other side of the street. The dog was in the same spot. I saw a light, and heard rustling and jangling and clanking, and there was a man using a flashlight or the light on a phone to go through the recycling and trash behind the church. This, I ascertained, was the dog’s owner.

I kept moving, wondering if I should go back and see if he was okay. But this is Los Angeles, and he was either okay or he was very much not okay, in a county whose homeless population has been estimated at 60,000.

There is a tent encampment not far from my home, beneath the overpass at the conjunction of two freeways. A few months ago, a fire broke out over there. I saw the smoke and waited to see if we’d have to evacuate, like the next neighborhood over. (We didn’t.) They say two young men tried to start a fire to smoke the homeless people out. One of the accused is a son of a local civic leader. I’ve heard there is camera footage. I do not know if any of this is true.

I do know that the encampment is still there, and that a few days before Thanksgiving I drove past a mother with three young children talking to somebody who was inside a tent. I don’t know if the mother and kids live at the camp, or if they were visiting from a nearby church or outreach center.

For the price of my bicycle to nowhere, I could cover the out-of-pocket cost for certain expensive psychiatric medications for one person for a few months. I suppose that doesn’t matter, or maybe it does. It’s something I thought about. I’ll try not to think about it again, but I will think about it again. I give a little to a few charities every month. I say, “I wish I could give more” but if I budgeted correctly, I could give more. Healthy people donate a lot. I think that sounds like something a healthy person does. Right?

I walked home. I was not tired anymore. Getting tired had been my goal but when you move, your body remembers what it can do. Your body remembers you are alive.

DDays later, the internet carried local news footage of the familiar, double-snake holiday traffic inching into and out of LAX — bright yellow headlights going to the airport, and bright red brake lights headed away from it. Some people typed versions of, “I would never move to Los Angeles” while others replied with versions of, “Good. Don’t come here. There are enough of us already, and we don’t want you.”

Last year, the county had 10.11 million residents, the most of any county in the nation. But 98,608 more people moved away last year than moved here. 119,254 very tiny people were born here last year, down 5.8% from the previous year. The U.S. Census Bureau does not advance an opinion on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

I suspect that if they surveyed all the people who moved out of Los Angeles County last year, the vast majority would cite finances as their reason for leaving. It is more expensive to live in the Bay Area, Honolulu, New York City, D.C., and certain parts of Connecticut and New Jersey, but it is still very expensive to live here.

If you come here, what will happen to you? I cannot say. Will you get famous for acting or singing or dancing or painting or writing or directing or murdering a family in a house in the Hills? It’s all been done before, baby.

Here is what happened to me when I moved here: I wrote. I made money. I spent money. I got into debt, and out of debt, and into debt. I made friends, and lost friends, and made more friends. I got loud. I got quiet. I fell in love. I fell out of love. I drank. I stopped. I gained weight. I lost weight. I gained weight. I lost weight. I acted, a little. I prayed. I meditated. I walked, once in a while. Old lovers and friends moved on. So did I. I wrote some more. I kept going.

I learned to be by myself, and to like it. You can do that in a county of 10.11 million people. The crowds and the traffic snakes and the screaming parrots will show you how much you love being alone. But you will love the crowds sometimes, and the yowling wildlife, and you won’t love the traffic but you will build some good playlists and you will get into audiobooks and podcasts and the news and you’ll remember to keep water and maybe almonds in your car, just in case.

The day before Thanksgiving, they told me I did not have cancer. That was good. On Thanksgiving, I tweaked my neck eating Zankou Chicken with ravenous enthusiasm. That was not good. I went to the chiropractor. It hurts to type. I keep going.

I am newly 39 and the old year is waning. The parrots are quiet at night. I am here, and I am healthy enough. I am grateful. I don’t like to tempt fate. I am quiet at night now, too.

Author, REAL ARTISTS HAVE DAY JOBS (and other books). Writer of scripts. Host of WELL, THIS ISN’T NORMAL podcast.

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