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Chris Erskine: Can I say I took a polar plunge if the water is 58 degrees?

The ultimate new year cleanse: a polar bear plunge
Polar plunge participants head into the water on a wintry day. It’s more solar, than polar. But so what?
(Emily Erskine)

I try hard to surround myself with bad influences. Keeps suburban life interesting, if you know what I mean.

As the kids grow older, my friends grow in number. I could fill my life with them, which is one of the reasons I’m stuck in L.A. after 30 years. What the apostles did for Jesus, my pals do for me.

The other day, a bunch of us took a polar bear plunge in the Pacific. We gathered at Verge’s little beach shack in Santa Monica, sent the kids out to chip holes in the thick ice, then we all darted into the surf.

After the holidays, it was nice to be around any water that did not have a jigger or two of hooch in it.

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“Vodka is my spirit animal,” I’d warned my sister on New Year’s Eve.

“Vodka’s not an animal,” she said.

“But it’s a spirit,” I reminded her, and things went quickly downhill from there. We couldn’t get an Uber late New Year’s Eve, so we walked home from the bar at midnight, chased by our various spirit animals (mine bit me).

That was December, when it was mostly gloomy. Now it is January, and the sun won’t stop.

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So it was the perfect day for a polar bear plunge, not too bitter. Boston and Chicago might scoff at a polar plunge in 58-degree water, but it’s all relative. Besides, we needed something to do.

As the sun set, the horizon got all bleary-eyed and tempting. I wanted to swim to it — like in that old version of “A Star Is Born,” just swim straight out to sea, though I’d probably get run over by a freighter between here and Catalina. Or swallowed by an orca. Or both.

“Your son looks like a zipper,” Ulf says when we finally get out of the water. “You ever feed him?”

That’s right, my old pal Ulf is back. He’s got his own zipper, a long scar on the jaw from his drinking days at USC, and that trademark Ulf twinkle he got from his dad, Frank. Swedes, huh? Put them in the cold sea, and they light up like eels.

“I really like your crazy friends,” my sister tells me.

“Give ’em time,” I say.

In the afterglow of the polar plunge.
Moguls and movie stars used to romp on this stretch of Santa Monica sand. John F. Kennedy too.
(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

Still, a pleasure to take this polar/solar plunge. Splashing in the sweet sea seemed to energize everyone after long weeks of holiday wine and cheddar balls. Even my buddy Bittner looked a little pregnant.

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Typically, January is kind of rotten. Everything tastes like cigarettes. There is, suddenly, no music.

The other day at Starbucks, I watched strangers swipe at sniffy noses with their fists, the punch-drunk fighters of midwinter. They were probably wondering if they were catching something or whether it was just the cumulative effects of that awful furnace air, which smells like feet.

Here in flu season, you might think it risky that we plunge into a cold ocean. But I suspect the average Starbucks contains more germs. Coffee can’t compete with cold saltwater when it comes to putting a little bounce back in your step. This year, 26 idiots took the plunge, compared to four a year ago.

It’s simple: We run into the water, we run out again. I collect the towels people forgot along the shore and scamper back to the house, where a hot tub awaits like a giant cauldron of soup.

If you know L.A., you know this magnificent stretch of sand just north of the California Incline that sweeps down to PCH from Santa Monica.

During the Kennedy era, it was the site of the Western White House. Peter Lawford had a place and, by turn, so did JFK. The Rat Pack goofed around here, studio moguls kept second homes, even F. Scott Fitzgerald had a house where he hammered out screenplays between gin rickeys.

Some residents back then purportedly hosted orgies, but that seems written in the wind. Who can really say? You don’t know the context or the pureness of their hearts. Maybe they were just checking each other for ticks.

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I try to think the best of people, which is why I’m still friends with Bittner and Ulf. We need pals when we’re 10; we need them even more now.

And one day on this same beach — on a moody winter afternoon when the sea looked like silt — Marilyn Monroe wrapped herself in a fluffy beige towel and took the last photo she would ever take, right here, at the exact location of our second annual polar bear plunge.

So we’re toasting a lot of important treasures today. The sun, the sea, the linen of a movie legend’s hair …

Most of all, California.

Chris.Erskine@latimes.com


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