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Uneasy Nerves in an Uneasy Land

October 06, 1987

These are Joan Didion days and Raymond Chandler nights in Southern California: earthquakes, fires, searing heat, looming drought, the Santa Ana. The midday air is a superheated shroud of yellow-brown. When coolness finally comes late in the evening, it fails to soothe jagged nerves that wait, and wait.

The night stillness is soft and sweaty. A child cries out from somewhere in a bad dream. Air conditioners strain to escape their window chambers. The sea gleams waxen beneath the near-full moon. The angry and ill-tempered lash out at nothing--at everything. But these are mysterious forces at work beyond the reach of any fist.

This is when Southlanders live up to the myth of life on the edge. If Angelenos did actually luxuriate in endless lotus days, they must pay the price from time to time. Just one bizarre incident at a time never seems enough to balance the accounts. And even when the sea breeze overcomes the Santa Ana and the aftershocks fade, will not the winter rains and storm waves bring floods and mudslides?

But there is a serenity, too. Some motorists still display uncommon courtesy to others as they did the day the freeway shook them all. Life slows down. Neighbors suddenly become neighborly. Ex-husbands check to see if former wives are all right. The quakes, the heat and all unite Southlanders in the same shallow roots that cling to this dry, brittle California soil. And soon the rains will provide nourishment for the soil--and for the dry, brittle California souls of the summer of '87.

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