Heat really can melt brain cells.

How else to explain the collective sigh at summer's end, the sweet laments about a season's last hurrah, those romantic adieus to sultry nights and carnival days, the nostalgic pining for burgers on the grill and kids running through the sprinkler?

There should be a law against summer, or federally mandated warning labels at the very least. All this business about the livin' being easy, all this hip-hip-hooray for the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summertime, summertime sum sum summertime?

Psychiatrists call it denial.

The reason summertime is cloaked in denial is simple: It is a near-death experience.

The reason I know this is because I have worked my way past the trauma, through the anger, beyond the denial, until finally I can now not only accept the truth--terrible as it may be--but even share my pain in a selfless public gesture so that you, too, might make this same healing journey.

My story begins where I did, in Southern California, the Golden State, that shimmering kingdom in the sun governed by the Beach Boys, Coppertone and, to my eternal regret, Malibu Barbie.

Empirical evidence that summer is a mean season began mounting when I was 8 and my parents sent me to a day camp whose very name should have revealed something more sinister: Hidden Trails. (Why hide the trail, especially from small children?)

I was not, to put it kindly, a coordinated child. The backyard swing set was a veritable deathtrap. I broke my arm falling backward out of a swing--even though I was not, technically, in motion at the time.

So why were my folks shelling out hundreds of dollars so I might have "summer fun" on trampolines, horseback and white-water rapids? (Okay, an Olympic-size swimming pool, but not a helluva difference when you toss in a few hyperactive fat kids in inner tubes.)

By the time I was old enough to avoid camp trauma, the universal human pattern of summer masochism had taken hold. The challenge of summer was no longer merely to get out alive.

It was to tan.

The pressure to tan, in San Diego, at 14, cannot be underestimated. Coppertone's slogan was "Don't Be a Pale Face," and SPF was just a knob your dad made you swear never to touch on the hi-fi. Teen magazine and its cousins set the standard: Only a deep tan could properly showcase the frosted blue eye shadow and chalk-white Yardley lipstick that completed the coveted Cover Girl look.

My older sister was my tanning enabler. Whether at the beach or in the back yard, the drill was the same: We would baste ourselves with cocoa butter and roast for hours like human potatoes. My sister's olive complexion turned golden, then brown, then even browner. She could attain Coppertone perfection in a single afternoon, and spend the rest of the summer maintenance-tanning.

I would attain near-incineration in a single afternoon--and spend the rest of the summer trying to brown whatever centimeter of skin hadn't been charred right off. (Note: If you think it is impossible to get sunburned veins, put a big sheet of Reynold's Wrap over your beach towel before you fall asleep sunbathing on a summer day in California.)

Besides being cursed with the complexion of Morticia Addams, I faced another teen-queen drawback in Surf City: I was decidedly brunette. Ah, but Teen had a solution for this, too: Squeeze lemons into your hair and leave it in while you are sunbathing, the arbiters of pubescent beauty advised, and you would acquire sun-kissed golden highlights to complement your deep, dark Coppertone tan.

Which is all well and good, except for the bees.

Entomology further bolsters my theory that summer is a silent killer. It is only human that we seek naive comfort in the lullaby of crickets when legions of fire ants, wasps, malarial mosquitoes and bloodsucking flies the size of Latvia are plotting to devour us and take over the world.

The instinct to head to the beach is a primal one born not out of the need to frolic in the surf, but to escape. Not metaphorically. Literally.

Well, except for the part where the beach tries to kill you.

There are certain truths about California beaches that the Beach Boys, who were bought off by Big Beach Money, never revealed in their popular oeuvre.

This is why you are enticed to "catch a wave" and go "sittin' on top of the world," instead of being warned that you will in fact "catch an undertow" and get "swept screaming to Catalina."

Worse yet, you don't catch the wave. You get pummeled by it, tumbled like a rock through a polisher until you are flung to shore, splayed blue-lipped before the lifeguard station, where you will still be deemed unworthy of rescue if you are not adequately tanned and lemony blond.

Wake up! Summer is when our planet careens as close as it can get to a giant ball of fire, and we think this is a time to kick back and relax? Summer is an apocalyptic warning, a preview of Hell. I mean, what more evidence do you want? The major holiday of summer is celebrated with explosives.

It's sweet, sweet September we should save our songs for, that month that fills me not with regret but anticipation. I keep a gleeful death watch over the black-eyed Susans; I wait for pumpkins to replace the bins of corn at the farmers' market; I race triumphantly into the night to greet the first chill of autumn.

And then--with pasty skin and mousy hair--I rejoice.

Hot fun in the summertime be damned.

At least I survived.