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East Coast vs. West Coast - is it time to bury cliches?

JUST about now, those of us who don't necessarily dream of a white Christmas (but often get one anyway) receive sun-kissed cards from friends in Hawaii and California. There may be a tiny smear of tanning lotion on the card, but our friends, being friends, try not to gloat.

Of course they do let you know that little Sally can now swim two lengths of the backyard pool and big Mike is perfecting his backhand volley. Everybody's hoping it doesn't get too sweltering - like last Christmas. No fun sweating out your holiday dinner over a hot barbecue!

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The cards are signed ''Aloha!'' or ''Laid back in California'' or ''Hope you don't have to shovel too much of that white stuff this winter!''

Recipients of such cards have all they can do not to throw them on the blazing log fire that's keeping them from turning totally blue. Instead they fire back Christmas greetings, frosted on the margins, showing sleighs buried in three feet of snow. It numbs the fingers just to hold the card.

Thus, at this season of reconciliation, meteorological differences exacerbate ideological differences, and both those in swimsuits and those in ski parkas are likely to agree only in chanting: ''East Coast is East Coast, and West Coast is West Coast, and never the twain shall meet.''

What a hoary set of myths each coast has invented about the other over the years! Consider the cliches perpetuated by New Yorkers, for instance, on the subject of California.

When a New Yorker talks about California, the first word to pop up is ''life style.'' New Yorkers, it seems, have style. Californians only have life style. Once a New Yorker introduces the term life style, he or she can feel free to speak of Californians as a strange species apart - not just from another coast but from another planet.

To a New Yorker, especially a New Yorker in December, life style has a lot to do with surfboards and hot tubs. Life style means soaking in the water and basking in the sun until everybody's hair turns blond and everybody's head turns soft. At which point, life style also has a lot to do with cults. Weird cults.

When New Yorkers touch upon education in California, they never mention Stanford. They pronounce the word: Berkeley. Meaning, '60s Berkeley. At the moment, the East Coast is making a major event out of the 20th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. That's California for a New Yorker.

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When New Yorkers encounter California's growing political power, they tend to react like a father whose 17-year-old son wants to borrow the car. ''What? Me let Jerry Brown drive my country? Forget it!''

On the subject of New Yorkers, Californians can be equally devoted to their myths. To Californians, New Yorkers have hearts as cold as frozen artichokes. All they care about is ''making it'' - every man, woman, and taxi driver.

According to New Yorker rules, you can only ''make it'' in New York. New Yorkers are world class at being parochial. They apply the term ''out-of-towner'' the way the Greeks applied the term ''barbarian'' - to designate the benighted inhabitants of the rest of the world. Since nothing happens unless it happens in New York, the rest of the world, by definition, consists of people who never ''made it'' because they never made it to New York.

Why does the rest of the world exist? In order to be told by New Yorkers what to think about everything - including California.

Between these two caricatures - New Yorkers meanly ''making it,'' Californians vacuously ''blissing out'' - where would the owner of a third opinion find a place to stand?

Joan Didion, a Californian who served time in New York, once wrote of a young man out of Rhode Island, lost in California. His girlfriend had been telling him , ''There's no meaning to life, but it doesn't matter, we'll just flow right out.''

The young man confesses to Miss Didion: ''There've been times I felt like packing up and taking off for the East Coast again, at least there I had a target. At least there you expect that it's going to happen.''

Miss Didion asks ''what it is that is supposed to happen.''

''I don't know,'' the young man answers. ''Something. Anything.''

The story says something about the West Coast. It may say even more about the East Coast. It says finally that confusion of purpose is a transcontinental state nobody can sneak out of by pointing a finger 3,000 miles away.

There is at least an ironic hint of reconciliation here that allows all us third parties to read it as a Christmas story, and to extend season's greetings to New Yorkers and Californians - wherever their heads may be.

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