»  The Straggler, No. 46

September 11th, 2006

  Too Darn Hot


On the indoor-outdoor thermometer attached to our bedroom window, the "outdoor" column is climbing up through the high nineties at 10 a.m. In the street there is no sign of life. Even the usual landscaping crews have apparently taken the day off. Front lawns bake under the kind of sky novelists call "brassy." The thermometer's "indoor" column registers a pleasant 77 degrees, thanks — heartfelt thanks — to a central-air-conditioning system, our family budget-buster the year before last. My tame, pampered children refuse to step outside except to go to a pool. We don't have one (that may be the year after next's budget-buster), and neither of the two neighboring families that does have a pool is at home. Only the dog shows any enthusiasm for outdoors: He whines for his daily walk.

Dutifully I fetch the leash and we set off. The dog is a long-haired variety and due for a grooming. I wonder how he will bear up in the heat. Our normal walk is a mile and three-quarters. Reminding myself of that continental quip about the "three indifferences" of the English (to food, sex, and the weather), I determine to cover the whole customary distance, defying the heat. As a precaution on the dog's behalf, I take a bottle of water to splash on him if he seems to be in distress.

In the event, the mutt copes better than I do. That mechanism for shedding body heat via a large, wet tongue must be wonderfully efficient. Half a mile out I am squirting the water on my own head, while my shaggy companion occupies himself with sniffing, marking, and evacuating in a manner not perceptibly different from normal. Back home, I discard sweat-soaked clothes and take my second shower of the day. It's still only 11 a.m., and "outdoor" reads 100 degrees. My daughter is busy with her latest enthusiasm, knitting. My son is watching a movie on TV — an early James Bond movie, borderline acceptable. I head for my attic study, the one part of the house not encompassed by the central-air system. It is hot as only an attic can be. I fire up the window a/c and try to settle to some work, sweating again already. E-mail from my son's football league: Tonight's practice has been canceled on account of the heat. I should think so.

I am not a hot-weather person — am, in fact, strongly sympathetic to the folk-anthropological notion that vigorous civilization cannot arise in a seriously hot climate. How did people in hot places get anything done before air conditioning came in? Heat is another country: They do things differently there. Or rather, if they have any sense, they do nothing at all.

There is a slight inconsistency in our expectations of human life under conditions of great heat. On one hand, we reflexively associate heat with passion, for reasons not too difficult to fathom. When Peggy Lee's recording of "Fever" was rising in the British pop charts 50 years ago, it was thought indecently suggestive, and there were calls for it to be banned from BBC Radio:

Now you've listened to my story
Here's the point that I have made:
Cats were born to give chicks fever,
Be it Fahrenheit or Centigrade …

Yet at just about the same time, Ella Fitzgerald was recording Cole Porter's "Too Darn Hot":

According to the Kinsey Report
Every average man, you know,
Much prefers his lovey-dovey to court
When the temperature is low …

So is heat conducive to romance, or not? We seem to have more evidence here, if more were needed, that those benighted 1950s — back before we Boomers came along to uncover the full, immutable truth about human life, nature, and society — were an era of pitiful sexual confusion and ignorance. The truth, I think we all know, is that while moderate heat is a romance enhancer, too much is too much.

As with sex, so with violence. The expression "long hot summer" actually migrated from the first zone to the second, beginning as the title of a movie about erotic passion in a sweltering Southern town, ending as a code phrase for the mayhem that ensues when too many young men go out into the street to escape stifling-hot apartments. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, in his book about the great Chicago heat wave of 1995, notes that while crime goes up in summer because the heat drives people outdoors, "when the heat becomes too extreme, crime rates actually decrease because would-be criminals become too lethargic to engage in crime." Ray Bradbury's short story "Touched with Fire" has a character who claims to know the precise turnaround temperature: "More murders are committed at ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit than any other temperature. Over one hundred, it's too hot to move. Under ninety, cool enough to survive. But right at ninety-two degrees lies the apex of irritability, everything is itches and hair and sweat and cooked pork …"

Cooked pork is right. My feeble window unit is barely coping with the infernal attic-ness of the attic.

Then, just as my irritability starts inching its way up into the homicide zone, I happen to read the lead editorial in my morning's New York Post: "It could be worse. You could be in Baghdad, where it'll hit 116 degrees today — and where the heat wave lasts all summer. You could be in the Army or the Marine Corps — walking the highways and byways in something a little more substantial than a summer-weight suit … Their boots melt into the soft, malleable asphalt highways. Riding in military vehicles without air-conditioning is worse: For security reasons, windows don't roll down … Thousands of young Americans — volunteers all — know what hot really is. And that's before the shooting starts. God bless them. So, should the opportunity arise, flash a soldier a smile. And say thank you — out loud."

May I be forgiven for having uttered, or even thought, a word of complaint. There's work far harder than mine to be done — more grueling, infinitely more dangerous — in temperatures my attic will never attain. I shall put up with the heat, do my day's work, and complain no more. As for thanking those soldiers, whatever I may think of the policies that put them where they are, I don't need telling twice. Thank you!