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This article was published on PJStar.com, the home of Journal Star Online, on
October 12, 2003

Dorothy was right; there's no place like home

By Erana Leiken

I've been traveling the last two decades. And, like Dorothy, I have discovered that the lands of Oz - or its Washington, D.C., and southern California counterparts - lack the comforts of my Midwestern home.

My journey out of Illinois began in the 1980s, when I headed for the Virginia suburbs of the nation's capital. This was the land of three-piece suits (most of them claiming to work for the FBI) and packed subways, where passengers stand toe to toe without saying a word or making eye contact. What a contrast to my hometown, Chicago, where people just naturally start up conversations about sports, weather and politics as they go about their daily routines.

It's the same in central Illinois, which adopted and hung onto me for 12 years. In Eureka, where I lived, and Peoria, where I worked, it's common courtesy to converse, even if it's something like, "Hot enough for ya?" People connect that way. It's normal. Besides, it's just bad manners not to talk to people.

On the East Coast, manners has nothing to do with it. And I never got used to the silence.

Washington, D.C., is a city of transplants, ambitious people who are there to make their marks in modern-day Rome. The seductive power of the capital tends to attract Type A over-achievers. I adapted, but never felt at home. Compared to the Midwest, Washington seemed cold and distant.

Even my neighbors kept to themselves. Friendships, for the most part, were developed at the office, a surrogate community of daily contact and the commonality of business. It was all right but no substitute for the congeniality and openness of Illinois.

About two decades later, I moved again to another "foreign" city, Los Angeles, where my laid-back acquaintances tell me I am "authentic." I've never been called authentic before. It's not as though I've been trying to be.

Rather, I've studied other women to see how I could fit in better. I've grown my hair longer, put in blond highlights, started working out at a gym and worn tighter clothes and more makeup, all in hopes that my new exterior would help me blend into the LA look. I've wondered if I was headed toward Botox and collagen next.

Regardless of age, there are almost no flat-chested women in LA; bodies are rebuilt here, youthinized to attain perfection and admiration. It's not unusual to see elders who look more like Zsa Zsa than Grandma.

I've tried to meet people by attending singles events: sailing, skiing, Christian, Jewish, cultural happenings. One gathering, under the guise of being a spiritual workshop, was actually a front to coax women to proposition men. Another singles function, a dating service's Valentine's Party, initiated courtship by having singles find the people who matched the numbers on their admission tickets.

LA's culture challenges my Midwestern upbringing and values. I am confronted with me-ism and narcissism in a place where illusion is admired in a town of "whatever." It's a city where causes, like saving trees from road construction and cats from being declawed, are commonplace. It's widely accepted to feed the homeless but not to make more than dinner commitments with each other.

So I find myself adapting once again and trying to think positively. There's a lot to be said for year-round good weather. My children are in LA. Unlike Dorothy, I can't tap my ruby slippers together and go back to Illinois.

Meanwhile, when I long for home, I look for fellow Midwesterners. I find myself relaxing immediately, in what I can only describe as some sort of tribal recognition. And I'm happy to report that we'll always have something to say to each other. There really is no place like home.

Erana Leiken, now living in Marina del Rey, Calif., is a marketing consultant and University of Phoenix faculty member. When she lived in central Illinois, she worked for WEEK-TV, PCM Magazine and the Journal Star.

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