By Tom Ehrich

SAN MATEO, CA -- California time, and the living is easy.

Not a cloud in the sky, balmy temperatures, serene town, calm people, plenty of good coffee.

It makes me nervous. I don't know how to behave. I am used to the hardship of weather extremes in the Midwest and Northeast, edgy communities, irritable people.

Life in this lovely town in Silicon Valley feels too easy. It helps, of course, that I am a visitor and not having to face outrageous housing costs or one-hour commutes on a bump-em car slalom known as US 101. Even so, this is easy living compared to our home in Upstate New York.

I find myself missing the mud, the lingering snow, the grayness that winter leaves behind on cars, homes, even on people. I miss the challenge. I even miss the ugliness. It feels odd when everything around me is beautiful.

I am reminded of a grand hotel where I stayed in North Carolina. Everything about it -- from landscaping to check-in to elevators to rooms to restaurants -- was perfect. Nothing had been left undone.

I think of the hotels where I stayed on my recent cross-country drive. They were a motley set, ranging from a $49 Motel 6 to a $95 Comfort Inn. None was remotely perfect, and yet each had character and, with one exception, made me feel welcome. I admired the hotel manager who was treating his inn in the middle of poverty as a worthy establishment serving worthy travelers.

I have eaten in perfect restaurants, too. I find I prefer the quirky, worn-heel places serving everyday food to everyday people.

Many people come to expect perfection. They treat it as their due. I think they also become fragile -- unable to deal with grime and disappointed expectations. Some become mean toward the everyday that is sullying their tableaux.

Dealing with hardship builds up our capabilities. Challenge forms character. Failure is the best teacher. Hard times and hard seasons draw us closer to one another. Personal crises make us who we are.

California isn't perfect, of course. The stunning weather of recent months is the public face of a devastating drought. Work-life balance is difficult to attain here, because the cost of living is so high and employers so demanding. Loneliness, sadness, greed, worry -- they're all here.

So I learn to look beyond sunny and 70 and to see the challenges. They are what make life interesting.