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Exotic locales might beckon. But the charms of an L.A. August prove that there’s no place like home
Illustration by Gracia Lam
There is no season I embrace more than summer, specifically the height of it: the month of August. I love the very word and everything that’s implied, the long, hot days and warmish nights. Year after year I cannot wait for this stretch, and then I hold onto it with every fiber of my being, counting the days until “real life” begins again. By that point I am waterlogged from swimming in our pool and too tan for my own good despite the basket of sun protection that sits outside the back door. I become a little haphazard about slathering on the screen creams and stop hearing the dermatologists’ admonitions. I let go. In fairness to June and July—they are fine. They have a vacation aura. But nothing like August, often our hottest and clearest month, with scant chance of fog. The gray marine layer that can be so dense in the first weeks of summer, notably for those of us living nearest the ocean, can drive us mad. By August it is blissfully gone.
This is the one time of year L.A. seems to calm down, take a deep breath, and turn back into a beach town. The casual, sandy soul of the place starts to reemerge as our intense, ambition-ridden city suddenly shifts into a kind of resort. The basin empties out, at least somewhat. Am I imagining it, or are people actually nicer—or maybe not in such a hurry? I do things I wouldn’t ordinarily try. Just because I can, I drive around the freeways at night with the windows open and the music playing and the lights twinkling. Where is everybody? I gleefully ask myself. Could it not always be so? Even on an afternoon—not during hard-core rush hours; one would still be advised to avoid those—I can feel frisky and visit a friend in the Valley, a journey from the Westside I would be insane to attempt otherwise. I agree to meet a pal for a late supper in Venice or West Hollywood, preferably someplace with a patio so we can be outside. We arrive in our flip-flops, summer skirts, and T-shirts. We eat grilled fish and drink cold rosé (a wine I usually never touch) from Provence or flutes of prosecco. A languid sexiness is in the air. I feel as if I am in the south of France or a town in Italy.
There appears to be a general absence of tension. The movie industry, which always produces a hustling buzz, is quieter. My actor friends don’t stress as much. They, too, capitulate to the August rhythms so that the competitive L.A. of the other 11 months is not as palpable. The aching longing to get that part or sell that script feels less paramount on a lovely night out with friends.
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Mostly, though, my preference is to be at home, where I am surrounded by the aromatic bounty of my garden, the front arbor heavy with jasmine, the rosemary outside the back gate, the lemon tree. We keep a jar filled with lemon juice to add to iced tea or make an Arnold Palmer or use in a marinade for chicken. If someone calls, no matter how late in the day, I say, “Come by and I’ll feed you. Bring the dog for a swim.” My cupboards are full of ingredients for quick alfresco dinners: cartons of linguini fini, cans of tuna in olive oil, jars of Niçoise olives. I stock fresh tomatoes and delicate greens and now, in observance of culinary trends, boxes of farro or quinoa. There is always cream in the refrigerator—to whip for berries or spread in a glass bowl with alternating layers of blood orange sorbet—and a selection of blue cheeses, from the most benign to the smelliest. The tallest shelf holds bottles of chilled white wines from Italy and France and Australia—and, yes, prosecco. I clip jasmine sprigs and stick them in a jar on the table. We eat by pool light and candlelight as the birds sign off. We might take to the chaises with blankets and watch the stars as the kids or pups enjoy a final dip.
No question, I am partial to the particular domesticity that comes with the season, the informality and spontaneity of the get-togethers, even the endless trail of towels to be washed and dried, especially if we have friends or family staying, bedded down everywhere. Our house is small; somebody usually ends up on an inflatable mattress, though we have converted the garage into a sleeping pavilion with a fold-out queen sofa. At night with all the doors and windows open, it is a magical space much fought over by visitors. The lucky occupants simply pop into the adjacent hot tub in lieu of joining the inevitably long line to get a turn in our one indoor shower.
Often the first up in the morning, I pick my way around bodies as I gather up laundry, a washrag, a pair of shorts. The last glass of bubbly water or tumbler of wine has left a damp circle on a favorite wood table. I don’t blink. In other months, in other frames of mind, I might be distressed. But this is something else. We are in a different zone. I boil water for coffee, put out juice, and pick apples from the tree in the backyard. A variety called Beverly Hills, they are almost over for the year, the fruit small, a tad tart and not terrifically flavorful, but oh my, here they are just like the lemons, hanging right within reach in my yard in my huge city. I never get over that. I peel and cut them into a generous dice, sauté the pieces in butter and dark brown muscovado sugar, and tuck them into thin pancakes.
Often I don’t read the morning paper, a lifetime habit. The news can wait; the world can wait. I don’t get snared by the titillating headlines that appear on my laptop when I check e-mail. Instead I read cookbooks, dreamy ones with pictures you can practically taste, and novels, not the so-called beach reads, which don’t work for me. My theory is that this isn’t the moment for fluff but precisely the reverse: It’s the time to have at the serious stuff. I have usually saved something new and major to tackle, like Richard Ford’s latest, Canada, which is breathtaking. Now, with the weeks left in my favorite month, I intend to go back and reread his earlier works to trace the arc of his artistry. I am similarly revisiting Hemingway because I recently read a splendid nonfiction work about him, Hemingway’s Boat, one of the books—along with Ford’s—that I have recommended to all my friends for their summer reading lists. I have another literary project under way, memorizing poems I have loved—from Auden and Roethke—so that I can carry the lines around with me. That is good use of my afternoons and no doubt of my brain, though I confess I occasionally doze off. I am grateful my Kindle has a snooze mode.
Used to be I would read with envy stories in magazines about summer outings. Those lavishly described and photographed escapes were always on famous islands or in seaside towns where the chic and well-off (let’s be honest, they were certainly that) would seek a four-week-long refuge from their stress-filled urban lives. Their Augusts seemed so romantic, so sensual, so humid, so—if you will—un-L.A. I wanted to be part of that picnicking pack until I realized I could make a more felicitous country idyll at my own cottage (in a far better climate). Many of my friends have discovered the same thing. Like me, they bring in the supplies—the food and books—and stay put, thrilled not to be vacationing somewhere else when they have the best of it right here.