The Middle Ages

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain. Reflections on L.A.’s ominous cycle of grief

I spotted a cloud the other day. It was a diaphanous thing — grayish white with poorly defined edges. But it was definitely a cloud. I appreciate the soft cadence of a cloudy day, so I was glad to see it back.

“Cheers, you stupid cloud. Where you been keeping yourself?”

Even the wind chimes sang as the storm moved in. It was like listening to Keith Jarrett warming up. It was Coltrane in the upper registers.

Then, finally, we enjoyed a rainy day. Then we didn’t. It wasn’t just a storm system, it was a nor’easter, blustery and violent. What should’ve been a cozy, feel-good moment turned ominous. First fire, then floods.

Welcome to the new year, eh? All of a sudden, we have roads to clean and promises to keep. We have puritan guilt. We have January. Oh joy.

We live, by all accounts, in one of the most-perfect climates, yet Mother Nature brutalizes us too. The landscape burned until it rained. Then it rained and poured. We’ve never been noted for our sense of moderation.

In California, the nation’s most egalitarian province, natural disasters seem to attack the wealthy as much — or more — than the commoners. In New Orleans, Katrina weighed heaviest on the working class 9th Ward, as floods often do.

Out here, disasters often prey on hillside castles overlooking the sea.

If that seems fair or just, try sweeping three feet of muck out of your child’s closet some time. There is nothing fair about any of this. Heartache is heartache. Precious photos are precious photos. No one owns the exclusive rights to hard luck.

We can’t take a hint though. This has been going on for decades, and we rebuild in vulnerable areas, because they bring us nearer to nature and soothe our jangled souls.

“It’s worth the risk,” we say. “Ever seen our sunsets?”

True. And every region has its curse. More people die each winter from shoveling snow back East than from sliding hillsides. And it speaks to our sunny and stubborn temperament that we won’t give up on it: the castle, the sea, the sequined California Dream.

So, on we go regardless, our greatest trait.

The rain will grace us awhile, bringing out the Irish in the hills, then give way to the crackling dryness of summer. Then what? Every season now feels like a game of Russian roulette.

I like rain, usually. I like it while driving the kid’s carpool. I like rain at midday, a bongo on the roof, assuming the roof holds, which it sometimes doesn’t. In California, roofs are designed merely to blot out the sun. Essentially, we all live in circus tents.

We usually welcome a steady rain and the way it rinses the car exhaust from the trees and the garden crud off the awnings.

Even when it behaves itself, I don’t want too much rain, just as I don’t want too much prime rib or baseball or dark rum. I could never abide Seattle, for instance. I probably like rain because it is so seldom around.

Still, what weirdness we’ve had lately, and it’s only January. The celebrities are restless, and I don’t think any of us sleeps well when they’re not happy.

I pay the bills and listen to them whine about various issues, including their movie salaries. I shrug it off, because in the end, no one gets us — not our politicians, not our movies stars. No one with a million bucks in the bank gets the men and women who work 50 weeks a year.

Hey, what else is new? So I brew big steamy vats of coffee, as if boiling rugs, and struggle to pay the bills, which come at us like mudslides.

I read once where Voltaire drank 40 cups of coffee a day, and I thought: “That’s all?” Me, I couldn’t overthrow France on fewer than 50 cups.

I am swilling coffee now, the only liquor I can now afford. On TV, a reporter stands in a foot of California muck.

I can’t help but think of a colleague who fled it all, moved to New England, L.A.’s spiritual opposite. There, she Instagrams constantly about visual cues in her new life — the light against the side of old barns and the little chapel where her parents married.

Her Instagrams are like Grant Wood paintings, except they happen three times a day.

So soulful are these missives that I fear I am falling a little in love with her. It’s like a Meg Ryan movie, where some distant soulmate finds some other distant soulmate, then meet at the top of a very tall building on New Year’s Eve.

Then jump. Because, really, what sane person finds a real soulmate that way?

Well, any port in a storm, as they say.

And on we go regardless.

Chris.Erskine@latimes.com

Twitter: @erskinetimes

MORE MIDDLE AGES

Putting away Christmas

Family is where you find it, including on the football field

Praise for a morning paper

My house is a practical joke

I linger too long over lighthouses

A tailgate with tri-tip and so much more


UPDATES:

12:15 p.m.: This column was updated with perspective on rain’s dangers.

Updated with perspective on the rain’s devastation.
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