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Fall in L.A.: It’s a Season of Discontent

Times Staff Writer

For most of the nation, fall is a time of frosty nights and crisp days. It’s the time for oatmeal and apple cider, raking leaves, putting up the storm windows and stacking cordwood for the winter ahead.

But for many non-native residents of Southern California, it’s a time of deep longing and loss.

This isn’t only because they miss seeing the leaves change color. Far more important is the emotional lift the seasons give. And by this criterion, Los Angeles is a psychological hardship post. The seasons run together into one endless sunlit haze. The result, say non-natives, is to sap your ambition, weaken your relationships, trivialize your personality and leave you disconnected and adrift.

Childhood Memories

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But is it only the seasons that non-natives miss or is it something much deeper?, experts ask. When people talk about the seasons, says Roderic Gorney, a UCLA psychiatrist, it is important to remember one thing: In many cases, what they long for is not so much the seasons as the childhood memories they associate with them.

Further, says Irene Goldenberg, a family psychologist at UCLA’s Neuro-Psychiatric Institute, many non-natives feel ambivalent about life in Southern California. In moving here, they have left friends, families and neighborhoods behind. In short, they’ve lost their roots. And this, Goldenberg says, is a large part of their melancholy and longing, not just missing the changing of the leaves.

This is not to say the seasons lack an important psychological function. “Human beings crave change,” says Michael Persinger, a bio-meteorologist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. And when they don’t get it, they suffer.

Deborah Klochko, a 35-year-old education curator at UC Riverside, photography museum who moved from Upstate New York, agrees. “I’m starting to dislike palm trees,” she says. “Basically, there are only two seasons here. And one of them (summer) goes on forever.”

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Says Julianna Walsh, 43, a Long Beach purchasing agent originally from Cincinnati: “In May, the jacaranda bloom. We have a wet season and we have a fire season.” And that’s it.

Although to Southern California natives, the seasons here are unmistakable, to non-natives they’re a poor carbon copy of the ones back home.

Back in Minnesota, says Trish Carland, a 34-year-old Orange County technical writer: “The sky is really blue and the clouds are billowy and white and full of expression. The colors seem truer there. The air is cleaner.”

“October makes me feel the best,” says Suzanne Siney, 46, who works for a computerized tax processing firm in Torrance. “I like the smells, the rustle of leaves, the crispness of the air. And here there isn’t any fall until November when a few leaves die off the trees.”

To Bob Lovka, a Sylmar writer who grew up in Cleveland, autumn in the Midwest is a fleeting, bittersweet, “melancholy” time filled with memories of “fireplaces, cool weather and the smell of burning wood.” Susan Brooks, 37, a teacher from Ontario, complains that she finds it is “difficult to explain” spring and fall to kindergartners who have never experienced those seasons.

And that is a shame, says Eric Pehkonen, 25, an air freight operations director who grew up in Milwaukee. Fall, he says, is “the calm before the storm, a little beat of beauty before you have to start dealing with 40-degree-below days.”

Further, he says, it’s good for your character. Fall is a transition time for the annual battle with winter. And if you survive, says Pehkonen, you feel a sense of pride and accomplishment: “You know you are providing for both yourself and your family.”

Seeking Change

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But it’s not just the crisp autumn days that non-natives miss. Many people pine so much for change, they’ll take anything at all, including bad weather.

“I love fog and clouds and dreariness,” says Ann Messenger, 46, a medical office manager from Burbank who has lived in Utah, Montana and Wyoming. “I used to walk to school when it was 30-below. It was cold. It was not pleasurable. But it was exciting.”

Cold weather is great, says Arline Arditti, a Hollywood homemaker: “When it’s cold, you become physically stimulated. You think and walk faster.”

Says Walsh, the purchasing agent from Long Beach: “There is nothing like going outside wearing a heavy coat and a scarf, taking a deep breath . . . and knowing that (you’re) alive.”

Even more important than the exhilaration of the seasons, however, is their psychological function--reminding people that time is passing, life is short and you don’t get an infinite number of second chances. And when you don’t get such signals, say non-natives, the result is to leave you feeling anxious, dislocated and more than a little fearful that on some deep level you are wasting your life.

“At least back home, you had these little stop signs along the way, (with the seasons saying) we are finished with one segment of life and now here’s another one,” says Lovka. “But out here it is numbing. It’s a never-ending road.”

In Southern California, says John Stewart, a public relations man from Detroit, the years all blend together. “It’s like one long endless episode. The only way I can remember when something happened is to refer to the address where I’ve lived.”

Chris Sorace, a 38-year-old Glendale apartment manager who came from Baltimore 13 years ago, agrees, saying: “You can’t remember dates. Time just keeps slipping by. . . . It feels (as if) you don’t have any real purpose. You wonder what happened. Where did it go?”

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There’s no doubt, says bio-meteorologist Persinger, that seasons can have a powerful effect on people.

In Northern Canada, he notes, the weather punishes people so much that they become unduly cautious and reluctant to take risks, traits that can be a handicap in the business world.

As for Southern California, Persinger says, one can safely assume the weather here has an equally powerful though different effect. The problem is that an individual’s response to the climate depends so much on his personality, it’s impossible to make generalizations.

A Few Rules

Still, he says, a few rules apply everywhere: In any “redundant climate,” people become satiated quickly. They grow bored and irritated. And ultimately, unrelenting sunshine becomes oppressive.

“It’s draining,” says Laura Gavey, a 23-year-old nanny in Torrance who came from Michigan. “There’s no change. You think it would be more peaceful and calming but it is not.”

Museum curator Klochko observes of the unbroken good weather: “It affects my mood. I’m much happier when it’s cold and gray.”

Adds Lovka: “It’s that whole California laid-back blase feeling. The emotional extremes have been flattened out.”

For some non-natives, the lack of seasons and omnipresent good weather is hard on family life and relationships. In harsher climates, Klochko says, “you spend more time sequestered because of rain and winter and ice and snow.”

But in Southern California, people can always hop in a car and go somewhere any time they want. “I wonder if that is the reason everyone out here is single or divorced,” says Sorace, the apartment manager from Baltimore. “Family life is null and void.”

Too much sunshine is destructive, says Patti Downing, 27, a housewife from Rancho Palos Verdes. Back East, families spend weekends together. “Here the weekends are to get your life together in order to work.”

Eliminate Stress

In the long run, says Mel Bloch, 40, a production manager from Santa Monica, the effect of Southern California’s sunny season-less climate is to eliminate “the stress that brings people together. It makes us less tough. There’s no place to go and nothing to strive for because it’s already here.”

Instead, Klochko says, people focus on superficial concerns, “how they look, who they know and what kind of car they drive.”

Unlike back East, where if you gain 10 pounds in winter, no one is going “to hold it against you,” in Los Angeles, Pehkonen says, appearances are crucial. And not just in personal relationships. Here, Pehkonen says, it’s more important to look good than to be competent: “If you look like you are in charge of the situation, you don’t necessarily have to be.”

It’s no wonder, Bloch says, that “we are considered less serious.”


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