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Our misguided mix of fall football and sunscreen
Years ago, in search of a “real” autumn, I went with my future husband to a college football game.
We rose early to make the drive from Orange County. (With all due respect to Chapman University’s fightin’ Division 3 Panthers, O.C. fans only recognize two kinds of college football, and neither the USC kind nor the UCLA kind is played here.) It was a long drive to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Still, I was excited. I was up for a California-style take on America’s fall tradition, and what said “fall in O.C.” better than the ritual pilgrimage of the faithful to see the Trojans play?
I’d lived for a while in Southern California by then. Somehow, though, I had never checked out the sports teams that had seemed so glamorous when I was a schoolgirl back East. Football had been a way of life during my central Pennsylvania childhood. Saturdays were to the Penn State Nittany Lions as Sundays were to religion; I know people who said the rosary all the way through the 1969 Orange Bowl. Even now, I can close my eyes and summon the smell of the dead leaves and steamed hot dogs, the stiff grass and white hash marks, the tough working-class kids slamming into each other in the gray, November coldness. If I concentrate, I can almost feel the sleet.
On that Southern California fall day, though, the Coliseum was about a thousand degrees. The seats burned the backs of people’s legs. Never have I been so glad to see lemon ice sold at a stadium concession. Who won? I forget. Maybe it was heat stroke, but I had just one lasting impression: There are seasons here that seem to have been invented by Southern California, and then there are seasons that make sense everywhere in America but here.
Autumn is one of those elsewhere seasons, and not just because transplants like me natter on about missing the fall foliage. Oh, SoCal has its version of fall; ask any native. They’ll tell you how the sun gets crisp and the surf gets cold and the golden light sharpens. They’ll even point to the couple of times in history when their crepe myrtles had time to turn colors before they were denuded by Santa Anas.
The whole truth, however, is that between Labor Day and Easter, everything here struggles to keep up with convention. We’re great at spring and summer, but then national custom and local meteorology disconnect.
Our trick-or-treaters don’t quite understand hot cider as a Halloween beverage. Our Thanksgivings are as likely to find us sweating over a grill as in front of an oven. Jack Frost has never nipped at my nose here at Christmas, although I once did run into Mel Torme, who so memorably sang those words, at the end of a Christmas Day movie. We can’t complain—who wouldn’t rather go over the river and through the woods without a snowplow?—but we’re used to being, as the saying goes, “America, only more so.” Spending half your holidays as a seasonal exception is unsettling.
So over the years, I’ve come to view football season as the start of Southern California’s cultural “away game”—the time when the lesser parts of the country, having spent half a year envying our surf and our sun and our looks and our excellent picnicking weather, get to shine.
It’s OK. No one should always win, even if raking leaves is overrated. And in any case, I think time is on our side.
Climate change is making everyone’s autumn warmer. And as a sports great from another American pastime once said, it ain’t over till it’s over. Someday soon, California will be as good a place as any to look for “real” football weather, because by then, even the Big Ten fans will be guzzling lemon ices. And when that happens, victory will be ours, sports fans. Christmas will feel like the Fourth of July.
Illustration by Brett Affrunti
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.