Thursday, May 31, 2012

the still life: slowing down without AC

Every summer, when the first beads of perspiration erupt on Steve’s furrowed forehead, he poises for action.  Given a green light, he can bring down the window sashes as if they’re blackout blinds in an air raid.  Even before I’ve  stripped off my winter socks, he can get the freon pumping, the fan whirring, the engine chugging; everything ready to do battle with that dreaded enemy: the heat. 

I’ve never been a big fan of AC.  I like the heat, and since it won’t kill you (unless you are especially old, infirm or perhaps living in a Tupperware box), it seems like an unnecessary use of energy.   While solar panels and electric cars remain cost prohibitive ways of reducing our carbon footprint, it seems foolish not to flip a switch, open the windows, and lop an average of 4% off our household energy use, all without spending a dime. 

Except then we’d be hot.  Somewhere along the line, we got the idea that we should never feel hot in the summertime.  Like cheap gasoline at the pump, and short lines at the grocery checkout, we’ve come to expect the convenience of cool. 

Steve and I always compromised about this by waiting until he couldn’t stand it anymore (usually around July 4th) before battening the hatches.  Then, three years ago, our air conditioner broke.  Assuming it would cost thousands of dollars to fix or replace (and not the $150 it eventually took!), we survived two consecutive Virginia summers without even calling the repair man.  Sure, we had some tough days, especially on the few occasions when the thermometer hit 99 degrees, but something interesting happened to me during that time: I learned how to be in the heat. 

That means, I learned how to be still. 

The heat changes your state of mind.  I am sort of a spaz.  I talk too fast, play the piano too fast, stir cookie batter too fast.  I even pick strawberries too fast.  When it’s 95 degrees outside, you can’t afford to be a spaz.

You just have to chill.

Chill, and listen to the hot.  You’d be surprised by what it will say.  The hot asks you to slow down, minimize and simplify.  The hot asks you to wear skimpy clothes like tank tops and short shorts—stuff that doesn’t hang and cling.  The hot asks you to take cool showers in the evening, wear your hair off your neck, walk slowly and barefoot on the cool dry flat of hardwood floors.  The hot tells you to forget the bra, sleep under a ceiling fan, and eat cold things like fruit salad and popsicles.  The hot thinks you should nap in the afternoon.     

If you can relax into the heat instead of fighting it, simple things will make you really happy, like the sweat on the outside of an icy glass, the clink of your spoon against a bowl of gazpacho, the cut of real lemonade through the summertime grime on the back of your throat.  You will smile just at the thought of a cool damp cloth on the nape of your neck.  Sprigs of mint.  Cold beer. 

The hot asks you to notice and seek out the shade, turn and lift your chin to the breeze.  Sit.  The hot will send you outside in the evening.  While you’re out there, it’ll suggest you greet the neighbors, notice the stars, catch fireflies, listen to frogs. 

We want everything fast, but things happen slowly in the heat.  The hot asks you to wait.  Live in the burn, acclimate.  When you do, you will not feel it the way others do.  They’ll complain about how hot it is today.  You’ll say, “really?”  The shock of walking into air conditioning at Target will give you a headache.  You’ll welcome the calming effect of the hot when it embraces you like an old friend as you leave the store.

I know you’re worried you’ll sweat, you’ll suffer, you’ll actually feel hot. But isn’t there a certain sex appeal to that?  Like a hot date, hot jazz, hot peppers.  Where’s the sizzle in spending a sultry summer evening watching a movie you’ve already seen, wearing fuzzy socks and a sweatshirt?

I was surprised to discover that I'd missed out on so much when I slammed and sealed the front door, leaving my friend the heat waiting outside, alone on the stoop. 

Then, sometime last summer, we fixed the AC.  We still made it until August before an extended forecast of 99 degrees prompted us to turn it on. That’s when Steve implemented a new compromise: that we set a limit on how much hot we’ll endure.  It’s a fair but flawed deal, because once you turn on the AC, it’s really hard to turn it off.  He turned it on this weekend because I was away and the mercury hit 90.  I turned it off today because he was at work and the temp plummeted to 81. 

Suddenly I feel burdened with the convenience of cool.

I already miss those days when there was no choice, when we endured because we had to, when we acclimated and slowed down. 

I miss those days when we learned to be still.

If I must endure a summer with AC, I will miss my friend, the heat.


  1. This post got me through a sweaty debate banquet without one gripe. Thanks. I really loved this post. My threshold will likely be a lot lower than yours but I'm going to turn off AC more and turn it down.

    Amma and I played in rain early and came inside to a yucky air conditioned chill. And I really thought about how silly and unnecessary

    1. you might be surprised. if your mindset is to just be, rather than to change the heat, you can manage more than you think!

  2. Hello Deb! We have a threshold of about 90 degrees during the day and 70 at night. Past that, then the AC usually goes on. But I dread the cold grocery stores in the summer. And I don't shop at Target anymore. Too tempted to buy stuff I don't need there.
    Old timers like to talk about how the heat would drive people out to their porches at night and then they would be forced to converse with neighbors. Unlike now, where we turn on the AC then sit by heat producing devices like TV's and computers while it's blazing hot outside.
    My theory is that removing ourselves from natures' moods is probably not good for our serotonin levels. When I garden in crazy heat I call it hot yoga. And it usually makes me happy, if I don't pass out or die out there. As I sweat away in my garden, I can think about how much stronger I am because I am out conquering the weeds in the heat, while I hear the neighbors' AC kick on. I know they are all enviously watching me, wondering how I do it. Or they are saying, "there's that crazy lady again. You'd think she would be thinner, what with all that hot yoga she does."

    1. Franny, you need to post more often on your blog, because you are hilarious. every one of your comments makes me laugh out loud. i do hot yoga too--with the additional meditative practice of ignoring the bugs crawling around my eyes and on the back of my neck! weeding also makes me happy, and calm. having your hands in the earth is supposed to ground you, literally, expelling nervous energy into the earth. hot yoga doesn't make me thinner either. i have a theory about that: isn't it an excuse to come in and eat cold ice cream? or drink cold beer to cool off? :)

  3. You are so right! We need to be still at times, and what better way than to listen to Mother Nature. This is my first time here. Read your comment to Anna (aninchofgray)...loved what you wrote to her. :)

    1. Hi Elizabeth, thanks for stopping by! Glad you liked my post, and the comment to anna. it's hard to know what to say, i worry about saying the wrong thing...

  4. Love this post. It makes me think of my childhood, when we didn't have central a/c. My parents would drag our mattresses out to the side porch, where our whole family would bunk for the night. And those lazy, hazy days outside.... Nice memories.

    I so prefer the heat to the freezing cold artificial air in stores and offices. Unfortunately, I can't forgo the a/c at home now, because we have guinea pigs. (If I had known how high maintenance & sensitive those critters are, boy... I think my daughter would still be petless! Alas, we're stuck with them now.)

    1. we slept on the porch at my unairconditioned parents! those are great memories. we also fell into the climate controlled pet trap. we killed a tropical fish by accident (not thinking of it when we turned the heat down to leave for the weekend - egad). then we had a bearded dragon for something like 7 years. our house is old and drafty and we felt we had to turn the heat up even higher to keep just this lizard warm! guinea pigs are really cute though. i love how the squeak!

  5. I would normally completely agree with this...both in theory and in practice. I still agree with it in theory, but I am unfortunately married to a walking furnace from Wisconsin. Also, with my having had this *waiting for the doctor to figure out WTF or for it to go away on its own* bronchitis since January, AC is something I've needed just to breathe comfortably on a regular basis. Which is a bummer for me. Normally I live for summer--I even spent 2 summers as a summer camp counselor (no AC there!) in southern Missouri, and you pretty much train your body to the unnaturalness of freezing your ass off in the summer time. Even now, there is nothing I love better than to spend a hot hot hot day sprawled at the beach (slathered in sunscreen like a well greased cake pan) with the occasional cooling dip. But when the humidity is up at all, the AC gets turned to 76 for the day (I've discovered this is the highest I can go and still breathe) and 73 for night (or the hubby is too hot to sleep).

    You know...if ya'll are hankering for a day at the beach, I'm over in Norfolk, and the apartment is only 2 1/2 blocks from a lovely little beach.

    1. man oh man thalassa. so sorry about the health issues. that sounds so frustrating. my brother was ill for 2 years with a "sinus infection" and it turned out to be something environmental (something toxic in his office building). drs. were recommending surgery and all he needed was clean air! maybe there's an external cause (new allergy or something)?

      i thought it sounded like you were back at the beach. but i thought you moved to indiana or illinois or something? will let you know if we get over that way! being so close to the beach sounds awesome!

    2. We went home to visit IL for an extended winter vacation and have been back in VA since mid-March.

      A new allergy is a possibility...the ER doc I saw last time suggested that I see an allergist, and if that didn't get to the bottom of it, to see about an immunologist, since I have some other autoimmune issues that could be contributing to the allergies.

      Today though is gorgeous--I have the windows wide open and the AC off!


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