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Scent of a season

Karen Stabiner is the editor of "The Empty Nest: 31 Writers Tell the Truth About Relationships, Love and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop," which will be published in 2007.

IT WAS LATE MAY, or maybe June, many years ago, and we were walking across a Santa Monica street at dusk. The only native Angeleno among us stopped dead in his tracks in the crosswalk, facing west, and drew a deep breath, as the carpetbaggers in the group prayed that the coming motorists wouldn’t run us down. The breather was oblivious to such concerns.

“Smell that ocean?” he asked, his eyes closed. “It’s summer.”

Right.

I grew up in the Midwest, where seasons announce themselves in meteorological boldface. The big weather memory of my childhood involved a midnight thunderstorm that sent my parents scurrying to the basement to save whatever wasn’t already floating in half a foot of suburban flood, while my little sister and I clung to each other in our parents’ bed, certain that the next bolt of lightning would cleave our ranch house in two. Our parents had told us that thunder was God bowling with his friends. We huddled under the covers and waited for an errant pin to come hurtling through the bedroom window.

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That was summer. Fall was enough dead leaves to smother a house pet. Spring supported the cliche about Chicago weather -- if you didn’t like it, all you had to do was wait five minutes and it would change. Winter? Snow drifts as tall as my grandma and a wind cold enough to steal the words out of your mouth. Such suffering can lead to envy, which leads to resentment, which leads to stereotypes: Los Angeles has sissy seasons; that’s what anyone east of the state line thinks, and all that sunshine attracts the weak-willed and the self-indulgent. Angelenos are as shallow as the weather. Nature can’t be bothered, the locals can’t be bothered. It’s all one big laid-back landscape, aside from the occasional earthquake -- which isn’t a season at all, of course, but just the kind of wacky fate Californians deserve.

But I have lived more than half of my life here now, with a man who also left big weather behind, and I bristle at the knee-jerk assumptions that outsiders make about this place.

This is what I have to say to my onetime neighbors: Summer is easily defined in Los Angeles if you know where to look. More than that, summer breaks down into sub-seasons. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. You have to pay attention, though. If seasons in the rest of the country are a format-bound sitcom with a laugh track, seasons in Los Angeles are an independent film, lighter on their feet, less overt.

Consider the tomatoes. Hydroponics? Any fool knows we’re barely on the cusp of summer. By July, we’re in heirloom heaven, and conversations at the farmers market turn to spirited debate over whether to go with the psychedelic pineapple tomato or the more demure Brandywine. We never get giddy like that over tomatoes in fall, winter or spring. This is purely a midsummer deliberation.

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As we head toward Labor Day, the waning days of summer separate the cognoscenti from the trendies. People who really understand the seasons shift over to the modest Celebrity, which comes into its own after the others have started to pack it in. Only the label buyers still go for the heirlooms.

If you prefer your produce shrink-wrapped, you probably have your own marker -- the exact tinge of the sunset, the ratio of gray to blue in the ocean, the way the air smells very, very early in the morning, even the way that air feels, which is different in August from the way it feels in May. There are lots of ways to tell.

Back east, they make fun of us for anything they can think of -- our flip-flops, our valet parkers, our plastic surgery, our casual clothes. They say, “Seasons? What seasons? People in L.A. can’t handle real seasons.”

We could return the favor, and make disdainful references to their bone-crushing stilettos and their fetish for black, to their chauffeured Town Cars, to their plastic surgery, to the parties where women wear one-time-only ball gowns that cost enough to feed a developing nation for a year. We could ask why anyone would be crazy enough to live in cities where weather is destiny when they could join us out here on the coast. But we don’t; no, we don’t.

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We rise above such petty bickering because we know something even more important than when summer begins and ends: We are not the ditzes they make us out to be (OK, some of us are, but there are people like that in Minnesota too). We are the real sophisticates, the ones who can spot a season’s change in a tomato display, the ones who don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, thanks. We get the subtleties. We catch summer on the breeze, at dusk.


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