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He's in a golden state of mind

LOS ANGELES -- I came here to escape the New England winter. I probably have seasonal affective disorder, but I hate pills and I'm too cheap to buy a light box. But I'm not too cheap to spring for a plane ticket to California. That's because I suffer from yet another syndrome: California-philia.

I just keep coming back. I spent a week in the San Francisco Bay Area in November, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Somebody offered me a plane ticket and three nights at the incomparable Hotel California in Palo Alto. How could I say no? On this visit, within 24 hours of landing at LAX, I was hiking up Malibu Canyon to Ronald Reagan's old ranch with my upper body exposed to the blazing sun. Too much information? I agree.

I've mooched vacations at Lake Tahoe each of the past two summers. I even have a ''Keep Tahoe Blue" decal on my car, which a friend assures me is the West Coast equivalent of a ''Deval Patrick for Governor" bumper sticker -- i.e., something you would see only on the back of a late-model Volvo in Newton. In other words, something I wouldn't be caught dead with.

Right next to the Tahoe sticker is an ''In-N-Out Burger" decal. California-based In-N-Out, as you may know, is the only burger chain that finds favor with fast-food Savonarola Eric Schlosser, author of ''Fast Food Nation." I recently learned that In-N-Out conducts a side business in Christian evangelism; there's a tiny ''John 3:16" etched on the inside bottom rim of every soda cup, and other biblical citations on the burger wrappers and milkshake containers. I don't have any problem with that.

Cali-philia is apparently transmitted through the mother. My mother was born in Oakland, which triggered much hilarity 10 years ago when she suggested we hop in our Plymouth Voyager -- my family was living in Palo Alto at the time -- and visit the old neighborhood. Ever the suburbanite, I feared that marauding bad guys might ambush us and then write an expletive-filled hip-hop song about the massacre, but -- guess what? A lot of Oakland is really nice.

So, what do I like about California? I certainly enjoy the weather, and being outdoors more often than I can be in New England. And yes, I think people in California are more open to new ideas and experiences than those of us who stayed East. One Sunday in November I took a trolley in San Francisco and found myself standing outside an unprepossessing storefront emblazoned with an anti-Bush sticker. This was the headquarters of the online bulletin board craigslist, which some analysts say has sucked more than $20 billion worth of classified ads away from the nation's newspapers.

It's not just dopey fads like hula hoops and protein boost smoothies that make their way east from California. Put another way, do you know a teenager who doesn't own an iPod, the white-wired spawn of Cupertino?

What about the loopy stuff? Sure, there's tons of loopy stuff. I couldn't believe the Inn of the Seventh Ray was still thriving in Topanga Canyon. I remember eating there when I lived in Los Angeles in 1979 and watching a coyote wander down the creek into a spotlight near the Inn's tables. The coyotes still come, the staff assured me. I had a ''fermented enzyme elixir" made from fermented jun herbal tea, raw honey, lemon grass, ginger, and organic gota kola. It is said to stimulate intelligence. QED.

More to the point, why don't I live here? I have lived in California, twice, once in Los Angeles for two years in the late 1970s and during the aforementioned year in Palo Alto. When I left Los Angeles, I decided I would never return to live because of the smog. It gave me headaches a few times a year as a young man, and it certainly doesn't look any better to me now.

Getting around in Northern California is still more or less possible, thanks to mass transit, but Los Angeles is another story. Many people don't plan more than one trip a day, because driving gobbles up so much time. The Boston equivalent would be refusing to visit Northborough and Hingham in the same day because it's too big a hassle.

Twenty-two years ago, an employer offered me the choice between living in Boston or San Francisco. Believe me, it's not like I haven't looked back.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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