Literary Los Angeles: The Four-Season Climate, Comforting Boundaries, and Literary Lies

It’s surprising, considering that fall is my favorite season, how unhappy it makes me.   Autumn surrounds me with all my favorite things—pumpkin pie, woolen garments, cranberry sauce, turning leaves—but it also drives me to check and recheck the weather report, hoping that somehow, miraculously, this year the temperature will dip below 80F sometime before December.

As a child growing up in Los Angeles, the lack of a four-season climate was a torment to me and I felt it most keenly in autumn.   It might sound silly now, but this longing as a child was very real and very sad.   It would not be an exaggeration to say it was one of the things that bothered me most in my obviously very fortunate childhood.   Every autumn there would begin again the onslaught of seasonal propaganda, and I would sit home and absorb picture books and fairy tales, and later, works of literature, from Ezra Jack Keats’ A Snowy Day to Laura Ingalls Wilder and Oliver Twist.   All of which feature snow.

As a child I read constantly and compulsively, until the world between the pages was the only one that mattered, and everything that happened outside of a book — my home, my school, my friends — was but a pale approximation of the real thing.     Snow, too, was the real thing, real frozen water that fell from the sky, not the fake plastic powder and tinsel icicles that decorated the malls in Los Angeles.   Fall and winter in Los Angeles always felt like faking it: my family would still visit a Halloween pumpkin patch, roast a Thanksgiving turkey, and pick out a Christmas tree, but no matter how much I enjoyed these things, I was haunted by the idea that it was in some sense playing pretend, pretending we lived in a place that required hearty winter roasts when we could just as easily have gone to a beach barbecue on Christmas Day instead.

Reading taught me what was normal and what was real, and L.A. wasn’t either.   (Among other things, this is an amusing example of western centrism.   Even as a child I was aware that other countries did not have snow at Christmas, did not even have Christmas, but the unreality of those places was even greater than that of Los Angeles.)   By living in a place without golden leaves or falling snow, I felt I was missing out on something fundamental to the human experience, and my life was the poorer because of it.   I felt cheated.

There may not have been any snow in Los Angeles, but outside, snow was everywhere. It was on Christmas cards, in “Charlie Brown” television specials, and on sale in the Southern California outlets of national retail chain stores whose west coast locations still stocked shelves of hats and mittens.   Every year I bought those mittens hopefully in case my lot might change.   (I still buy them now, though with the dubious justification that they are for traveling.)   Snow was in carols and coloring books and in plastic snow globes whose intimate bounded delicacy perfectly captured all the reasons I wanted winter.

I associated a cold winter with a warm hearth, with flannel sheets and fireplaces, and the coziness of being inside protected against the wind and snow.   Winter was about the reassurance of boundaries and the safety of a solid, brick-built home that was not so porous as L.A.’s light-soaked indoor/outdoor spaces.   Until I was eighteen I had never even seen snow but I associated it with respectability and a sort of grueling adulthood: shoveling walks, icing driveways.   Snow was responsible, solid, and mundane in the beguiling way of a Garrison Keillor monologue.

A real winter defined not just boundaries of space but also of time.   The changing of the seasons sets clear end posts on your years and days, not like in L.A., where the future winds out ahead of you as one long, bright, palm-tree-lined road. Seasons and their attendant rituals impose order on the undifferentiated mass of time.   The reoccurring yearly chores of putting up storm windows or cleaning out rain gutters remind you of all the rain gutters and storm windows past, the orderly progression of life.   In my childhood in Los Angeles it felt like there weren’t very many chores or rules or rituals, just broad expanses of time and space that spread out in all directions.

Now I’m older.   I know cold.   I lived for four years in Chicago and since then I’ve spent cold, snowy winters in Shanghai and in Paris; I’ve hiked through Scottish November damp, walked to work for two years in San Francisco’s endless dismal chill; I’ve even visited Russia in the winter.   I know snow is not easy or pleasant or fun. I know that for every snowball fight or sleigh ride or cup of hot chocolate by the fireside there are a dozen days of dragging your stiff, salt-encrusted trouser cuffs through a semifreddo concoction of cheerless mud.

Now I’m an adult who lives in Los Angeles and creates fictions both personally and professionally.   I’ve passed through undergraduate theory courses and post-graduate irony, and I know more than I did about authenticity, normalcy, and artificiality.   And yet I still ruthlessly enforce seasonal rituals.   Every September, I bring out the autumnal tablecloths and serving dishes, pack up the barbecue, and serve soup instead of salad.   Out go the white clothes and in come the black.   At Christmas it’s hot chocolate and roast turkey, no matter what the outside temperature might say.   Picking an arbitrary date in September after which I no longer wear sandals only reinforces the boundlessness of time and space, but I’m learning to be okay with living fictionally.

  • This is wonderful, Summer, just wonderful.

  • Joanne Byars

    This is great. I have always felt the same way, growing up in Florida and now having returned there after a stint in Iowa. I hated driving in the snow and shoveling the snow when I lived in the midwest, but it had a realness and a naturalness to it. You capture the warm-climate disconnect perfectly.

  • melbage

    Growing up in LA, too, I always felt the same way. (Perhaps somewhat mitigated by having an actual beach in the summer, though that was always my least favorite season.) I always felt cheated, like you said, and as if we were faking it. What I hated the most were the plastic decorations featuring Santa in Hawaiian swim trunks and sunglasses, posed my palm tress. Talk about giving up.

  • I’ve invited the whole family round this xmas for a traditional dinner, so obviously the roast is pretty important! I found a ton of recipes at this roast recipes site, but cant decide on anyone in particular – there’s too many to choose from! It’s fun planning such a big xmas meal though!