Every summer, sometimes mid-July, but always by mid-August, the sleek, sophisticated, culturally aware and culturally diverse citizens of Los Angeles suddenly start to sound like a group of goobers gathered 'round the cracker barrel.
"Hoo-wee," we all say, "it's hot. Dang hot."
"Was it this hot last year?"
"Oh, I don't think so; it's really hot."
"I don't remember it ever being this hot."
"Must be global warming--did you read how the North Pole melted?"
"I'm not surprised, because, man, it's hot."
Every summer, without fail, we are surprised that Los Angeles gets hot in the summer. Despite the fact that we live in a climate that is borderline desert, mostly Mediterranean; despite the fact that the average daily high for July is 83.8 and for August, 84.1; despite the fact that everyone else knows it gets hot. Despite all this information and our very own personal memories, still, still we are surprised, and somehow irritated, whenever the temperature climbs past 90, past 100 in the valleys.
Did we mention that L.A. has the occasional traffic jam too?
Just for the record, we broke no records this month. According to state climatologist Bill Mork, this summer has been "not a big deal. August got off to a hot start, but it will probably even out to a bit above normal."
Last week was hot, but August 1994 was hotter. On Aug. 13, 1994, the high at the L.A. Civic Center was 104, eight degrees shy of the all-time hottest day: June 27, 1990, when the temperature there hit 112, dropping the next day to a balmy 109.
"I kept hearing about how hot it was, so I kept checking the temperatures. And, you know, it really hasn't been that hot," Mork says. He admits things got a little out of control in mid-June, when it hit 103 in San Francisco and 115 in his Fairfield backyard. "But then, remember, the next day in San Francisco it was 55."
Last year was reported as the coolest summer since 1965, but during the last week in August 1999, Chatsworth hit 103, Woodland Hills, 104 and Van Nuys, 102. The year before that we had the third warmest August in 121 years; Chatsworth broke seven records for high temperatures and hit an all-time high when the mercury reached 113. In 1992, a weeks-long heat wave practically blew out the power in Orange County (this year's blackouts and brownouts in San Diego have been blamed on deregulation, not weather), and 1981 has the record highs for three of the last five days of August--98,103 and 99.
We won't even go into the scorcher of 1885.
Though no one can be expected to remember that year's record-setting days, it's not unreasonable to expect that we remember it was purty hot last year and purty darn hot the year before.
So why do the dog days of summer always catch us unawares? Well, this is the city of self-centered hyperbole, where everything that happens must be the first, the most, the best, or the worst--so where others would be hot, we are sweltering; where others see a typical seasonal shift, we see global catastrophe, starting, as so many things do, in L.A.
But probably it just reflects our idealized vision of the city in which we live--weather-wise, we expect perfection. We depend on it, take it for granted, and for nine or so months out of the year we get it. During the weeks it is denied us, we wander around like lost children, miserably certain that this is how it will be for the rest of our lives and wondering how we will ever survive.
Then it cools off, as it has this week, and we turn off the AC and forget all about it.
So when the temperature starts to climb next week or even next month, let's all just breathe deeply, hydrate often and repeat to ourselves, "It's only the summer, it's only the summer."
Mary McNamara can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.