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Sun Dialogue

Illustration by TL Ary

In our collective unconscious, summer is a sweet, endless, carefree affair. Its days are spent in irresponsible abandon, pursuing hot outdoor pleasures with nary a thought of responsibilities, appointments, deadlines. Hell, who even wears a watch from May till August? This is the season for flipping the bird to schedules and routines, slipping into 9-year-old mode: barefoot, munching on a corndog, hair green from chlorine. Summer is warm nights of dancing on the beach, swilling pink margaritas, being swept off our feet by some bronzed stranger who makes love to us in a room soaked in moonlight as chiffon curtains flutter in the tepid breeze.

Reality check: When was the last time you had three months off? Danced on a beach drinking a multicolored alcoholic beverage? What’s the big deal about summer for those of us who actually work and live in L.A.?

Although we haven’t exactly been hibernating all winter, something is different. We’re not puffing into the morning cold, watching our breath mingle with the chilly mist. Instead, we’re greeted by a blazing, dry heat when we escape the office for lunch. Our faces are a shade darker, or redder, our sunroofs open, windows down. We get an iced latte in the late afternoon to celebrate longer days.

Paradise Found

That’s why all those tourists leave their drizzly homes and come here, right? To have a few overpriced days of what we get for free. Last year, some 24 million tourists visited us; one-third of them came in the summer months.

They come here for all of the things that connote summer paradise — sand, warm weather and palm trees galore. In fact, the palms that thrive here naturally — the ones we take for granted — are coveted in colder climes. One Web site devoted solely to the palm joyfully displays those trees that, with proper care, can miraculously survive in cold-winter climates like Washington, D.C., offering the paradise seeker a taste of the tropics in her own freezing back yard.

The site, titled "Hardy Palm Trees and Ferns around D.C.," measures the "hardiness" factor of certain palms, such as the Needle Palm, which "is said to have withstood as low as –20°F," despite the common winter damage of browning of the tips and spears. With a heavy mulch covering and "protected exposure," these palms can live in places like New Jersey, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. So while East Coasters may sip steaming hot chocolate and gaze longingly through a frosted window at a lone palm clinging to life, we in L.A. seem to live a charmed existence.

Preview Travel is one of many companies selling L.A. as a summer paradise. "L.A.’s combination of sun, sand and 72 miles of gorgeous coastline stirs flights of fancy," it claims, encouragingly.

Not without takers. Some of the most desirable hotel rooms are those with the easiest beach access. The Shangri-La Hotel in Santa Monica, where all of the rooms have ocean views, has a 90 percent occupancy rate year-round, according to manager Dino Nanni. But Nanni says it’s hardest to get a reservation in July and August — be prepared to book at least a month in advance for that well-deserved summer vacation.

Right. If you’re an employee in a medium or large private company, you’ve got an average of 9.6 days of annual vacation to work with — if, that is, you’re one of those 79 percent of American workers who get any paid vacation at all. If you’re the loyal type and have been around, say, 20 years, you can expect 20.3 days. A day for every year you’ve slaved away . . .

Weather or Not

Save those precious days for the summer months, then, when L.A.’s favors are best enjoyed, whether for a weekend getaway or a weeklong escape. The winters are foggy, the weather unpredictable. Low temperatures in L.A. typically hover around 45 degrees on January nights. In the summer, though, they can be in the 60s. It’s the difference between a wool coat and a skimpy sweater.

Weather professionals say that Southern California does have seasons, contrary to what some might think. "Sometimes they’re hard to tell apart," says Miguel Miller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "Winter is cool, but mild and rather wet." Not your typical tropical paradise. In fact, according to Miller, Southern California does not have a tropical climate at all, but rather a Mediterranean one. While the tropics are characterized by muggy weather like Florida’s, Mediterranean climates are classified by a strong variation between rainfall in the summer and winter, Miller says.

So it comes down to this: If you’re looking for beach weather in February, you might be disappointed when you need an umbrella instead of a beach ball, but if you’re planning an outdoor wedding in June, says Miller, "You’re locked in, it’s almost a guarantee" that it won’t rain. "That song, ‘It never rains in Southern California,’ that guy was thinking about the summer," says Miller.

Our guaranteed-sunny summer days are a prescription for pleasure, offering a natural antidote to the weather-induced moodiness brought about by psychological conditions such as Seasonal Affective Disorder, a recurring fall/winter depression experienced by those with a high sensitivity to fluctuating amounts of daylight. Gerald Davison, a professor of psychology at USC and specialist in abnormal psychology, says that the best treatment for SAD is "bright white light" — exactly the type the sun gives off.

The occurrence of SAD among Southern Californians is, understandably, relatively minimal. "That is something I’ve never seen out here," says Andrea Davis, a psychologist who has been practicing in L.A. for almost 15 years.

But 4 percent of Americans suffer from the summer version of SAD — they get depressed when it’s hot. Heat may interfere with the release of serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood and appetite. Summer SAD is most commonly treated with antidepressant drugs, which decrease the actual temperature of the brain in order to cool down the body.

Psychologist Robert Butterworth says that for the dream seekers who expected the postcard when they moved to California, less-than-perfect weather can cause depression, despite our mild climate. "That’s one of the reasons we’re out here," he says. "People want to wear those wild â shorts and put the top down." Like February’s vacationers, we can be disappointed by Southern California’s seasons. And, says Butterworth, it’s even worse when we watch the news and see that the rest of the country is having a better spring than we are, with cherry blossoms aplenty and warm days contrasting against a season of cold ones.

The mercury in our thermometers rarely jumps drastically. The average high temperature in L.A. in May is 70°F, and in December it’s 68°F. In January it’s 65°F, and in August it’s 77°F.

Body Heat

I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes

I have to turn my head until my darkness goes.

—The Rolling Stones

We Angelenos know that a few degrees can make all the difference. We celebrate en masse, but not always in the ways you’d expect. You might think that we’d bleach our hair for that sun-kissed look, but that’s not always the case, says Steve Lococo, style director at West Hollywood’s Alberto Borrelli Salon. "In Los Angeles, what we’re seeing is that a lot of people who have been highlighted in the winter are going darker for summer. There are a lot of richer golds, bronzes, and red is very big."

According to Lococo, our tanned bodies allow us to go darker in the summer without being weighed down by the deeper colors. And, he says, just when you might think we’d be cutting our hair short to get it off our necks, we’re not. Instead, we’re tying it up with what he describes as "knots." What used to be a negative term connoting images of adults with large combs is now a trendy way to control our manes after we emerge from the ocean waters or as we head off on a ride with the top down.

Our favorite body-care stores target the summer crowd with summer-specific products. Bare Escentuals, which maintains three boutiques in the L.A. area, shakes things up for summer with products that are activated by sun and heat, perfect for those oven-baked summer days in the valleys. Leslie Blodgett, president of Bare Escentuals, says, "Our entire hair-care line is based on the blooming essences" that smell different based on temperature. "If you perspire, if your body gets heated up, it changes," she says.

Mary Setterholm, fitness instructor for the city of Manhattan Beach, is in the business of heating up bodies, pushing them to the boiling point. Her GI Jane Beach Boot Camp, a get-in-shape-for-summer exercise course at the beach, includes a run into town, where participants stop in front of pancake restaurants and perform defiant stretches in the face of such degenerate softness. Then on to the store hawking swimwear, where the GI Janes jog in place — their goal, or at least part of it, strung across plastic cups in the store window in front of them. "This is war," Setterholm says.

"There is a direct correlation between heat and body-consciousness," says Cynthia Graff, president and CEO of Lindora, which operates 31 medical weight-loss clinics in Southern California. Clients come to Lindora based largely on urgency factors, such as upcoming weddings or reunions. "Summer in and of itself is an urgency factor," says Graff.

Go West, Angeleno

Even L.A.’s boys and girls in blue gear up for summer. According to Officer Steven Barragan of the LAPD’s Pacific Division, which supplies extra officers in the summer to patrol the Venice Beach area, the beach assignment is a coveted one. "It’s very nice being out here," Barragan says. "It’s sunny, you get the ocean breeze, it’s pretty temperate, the people are more friendly, and they come from all over the state, the country and the world. So it’s a nice opportunity."

Crowds in Venice Beach increase four- or fivefold during the summer months, warranting more officers. "They come not just from all over the world but from different parts of the city that don’t get along," says Officer Jay Varga, Barragan’s partner. It seems that the whole city shifts westward in the summer, drawn by the sand and the sun and that great remedy for the heat: the sea and its cool breath.

Booze and Bucks

But paradise seekers beware: Don’t get carried away with your fantasies of wine coolers on the beach, unless you are Demi Moore and own a piece of Malibu beachfront property. A recent attempt at circumventing the law at El Matador beach in Malibu involved digging holes in the sand in which to drop incriminating bottles lest the cops arrive and interrupt the bacchanal. Alas, the arm of the law is long — long enough, in fact, to reach into our carefully dug holes, retrieve said bottles and charge each of us a $75 fine.

. . . which, according to marketing consultant Judith Waldrop, we would otherwise be spending on swim trunks and hot dogs, sports gear and prom dresses, water toys and pickles, tuxedo rentals and mayonnaise. The sunshine may be free, but the attendant pleasures are anything but.

The Barest Truth

The sun shines 263 days a year here in L.A. We expect it; it’s our God-given right. (Thus the chorus of the enraged howls on those other 102 days.) But we still celebrate summer, maybe because it is excessive. It is when our gentle romance with the sun escalates into a full-fledged, crazed obsession that’s hothothot.


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