Glancing at the forecast in Los Angeles this past week has been unusually exciting. After months of heat, a rare stretch of highs under 80 and lows in the 50s. This past Friday, it was 56ºF in Burbank at 10am. That morning I texted a friend, “I didn’t even know this was possible.” Icing on the fall-weather cake: all weekend, Monday, October 25 — today — has been labeled with an ultra-rare “100% chance of rain.” And sure enough, it’s been raining all day.
If you live in someplace with “real weather” you can stop rolling your eyes now. I’ll get to you in a minute.
Apparently, the same system that brought this L.A. storm is causing flash-flood warnings in Northern California. But assuming that today’s slow-but-steady rainstorm won’t go on to wash Los Angeles out to the Pacific, I’m going to press on and eschew discussion here of the many serious weather-related crises facing our planet at present. I’m not a meteorologist or an environmental scientist. I’m not going to attempt to contextualize current weather patterns into broader global trends. All I can tell you about is the weather as I’ve actually experienced it here in Los Angeles over the last nine years.
In brief: I haven’t. Sure, there’s been smoke over the years, from fires both nearby and distant, and a minor earthquake woke me up at 7am yesterday morning. But generally speaking, there has not been much weather to report.
In less-than-brief, though, the story gets more complex. As someone who grew up in the infamous bad-weather town of Chicago, how have I transformed into someone who gets wowed by a low in the 50s? Or awed by a day of rain? When did I start putting any trust into a weather forecast in the first place?
By the time I left Chicago for Southern California, I had been half-heartedly plotting my departure for years. The winters weren’t getting longer, but they were feeling longer. Far worse than the temperatures (for me at least) was the cloud cover. Doctors were starting to test vitamin D levels, and one year mine registered in single digits (I think the number the doctors were looking for was around 30). Weather in the Great Lakes region was not just forbidding, it was also highly changeable, even on the nice days. For my last several years in the area, I lived on the 30th floor of a high-rise. Some winter days, I’d be working at home and the sun would peek out for the first time in a week. I’d calculate if it was reasonable for me to stop what I was doing and go outside; by the time I got my shoes on and caught the elevator to the street, the sun had often disappeared again.
The bad-weather proclivities I’d unwittingly developed were brought to light (hehe) by my new SoCal lifestyle. The sun became a real distraction. As an MFA candidate in a writing program, it behooved me to stay at my desk most days...buuuut if it was sunny outside, I felt an overwhelming “get it while you can” urge to go outdoors. It took me a while to learn that, even if an eatery had outdoor tables available, it might actually be nicer to sit inside. (In Chicago, if it’s nice enough for a restaurant to have their outdoor seating open, that’s just where you sit. It’s not a conversation, at least not in my family.)
“Do you miss Chicago?” people sometimes ask me. I tell them that I love Chicago. But, choking on the cliche of it, I add that I do not miss the weather.
Truthfully, not everyone in L.A. loves the constancy of the weather here, and not everyone gets excited about the rain or the cooler temperatures. People — transplants, especially, and L.A. has lots of them — often lament the lack of clearly delineated seasons. Some particularly honest folks (and, I guess, me) might admit that what they’d most like just a taste of the seasons. A dusting of crunchy red leaves, a soupçon of snow. As any denizen of four-seasons country can tell you, the first snow of the season is exciting; by the 5th snow the thrill is gone. In Chicagoland, when it’s 40º in April, the very concept of spring starts to feels like some kind of sick joke.
Ironically, I credit this long season of misery for keeping me in the Midwest for so many years — once you’ve made it through the winter, only a fool would opt to leave without allowing themselves the reward of summer. If you’ve only visited Chicago in the summer, you might struggle to appreciate this energy shift. Perhaps you walked through a crowded Lincoln Park Zoo on a day when the temperature and the humidity percentage were both at about 95, and wondered how soon you could rush back to your AC-chilled hotel room and towel off. But if you’ve been through the winter, you can feel it. When the myriad possibilities of a temperate day unfold on the lakefront, a population that was hibernating against their will rushes forth and floods the streets with relief. It’s palpable.1
Some Chicagoans like to boast that the strong stick around. Being able to hang with the blizzards and winds and humidity and unpredictable seasons, the spring that never quite seems to kick off and the summer that almost always ends a month too soon…all of that is considered a mark of grit, a badge of honor. And listen: grit is good. I value grit. So, when people ask me if I like living in Los Angeles, the cliche of my response isn’t the only thing that’s bothering me. I also have to trounce all over the sense of pride that nearly three decades in Chicagoland taught me was an asset.
I wonder, though: How does grit work? If you’ve got some, can you use it all up fighting off bad weather and then have no grit left to handle things like, say, standing up to criticism? Facing professional rejection? Dealing with a health crisis? Maybe not having to worry about the weather gives me grit energy to direct elsewhere. Just an idea.
Now, I’ve been in mostly-sunny Southern California for almost a decade. A rainstorm feels like a blessed change of pace. I look forward to “sweater weather,” but, embarrassed as my inner Midwesterner is to say, “sweater weather” means anything below 70º Fahrenheit. I keep a heavy winter coat in my closet for visits to colder climes, which happen every Christmas when I head to Chicago or the mountains of Northern New Mexico. And on those trips, I don’t mind the cold, really I don’t. In fact, when I say that I “don’t miss the weather” in Chicago, what I’m really saying is that I don’t miss having to think about the weather.
When the weather gets bad enough you have to do calculations. You have to prepare to change your plans, to stay inside, to make excursions brief. Whether you love the sunshine or hate it, when it’s almost always sunny and temperate outside, you’re free from having to think about the weather at all.2 That’s a freedom that allows you to turn your mental energy to other pursuits, like deciding where to have dinner or what freeways to take.
If you like, you can take this somewhat mundane realization at face value and run. But while I have you, allow me to point out that it functions pretty well as a metaphor for privilege. I’m talking privilege of any kind — race privilege, class privilege, gender privilege, American privilege, health privilege. Day-to-day, a main way privilege manifests is in the freedom from having to worry about or navigate that aspect of one’s life. Furthermore, just as everyone in L.A. begins to feel like 60º is chilly and 80º is hot, having privilege doesn’t equate to some permanent state of grateful bliss. No matter what climate you live in, there are going to be bad-weather days. (Or fires. Or earthquakes.)
It’s not a perfect metaphor, of course. While you can theoretically choose what climate you live in, you can’t choose what race, or body, or family, or country you were born into. But just as it would be foolish to tell someone that they should “feel bad” about not having to suffer through a hard winter, no one need “feel bad” about the privileges they were born into — the point is simply to acknowledge that it exists and carry that awareness into the world.
“It’s nice not to have to worry about the weather. If I lived somewhere else, the weather — and constantly having to think about the weather — would be a challenge.”
As for me, I’m not going to think any more metaphors today, or about droughts or atmospheric rivers. I’m gonna spend some time on my porch wrapped in the blanket I knit during the summer of 2020 and drink some hot coffee. I’m going to enjoy the novelty of the rain, the little taste of some other place, some other season, pleased with the awareness that someday soon it’ll be sunny again. I’ll be able to enjoy that sunshine all the more for having missed it.
Oops, there I go again…
That was never more true than on my visit this past summer, when people weren’t just busting out of their winter coats and offices, but out of their quarantine cells.
The pandemic has offered a powerful illustration of this in the relative practicality of outdoor dining. Here in LA, as much as restaurant owners struggled, they never had to face the inevitability of it being too cold, rainy, or snowy to serve customers outdoors.