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Warm Feelings

A cultural divide at the thermostat.


The river sweats

Kepone and antifreeze

The phony steamboat drifts

To the sound of "Birdland"

—Performed by perspiring VCU jazz students.

But most of all, like everyone else, he would have gone on and on about the summer heat. That is, if he could have done any writing at all, what with the temperature. Good Lord. Some days it's enough to stun a squirrel.

What was I saying? Oh, right. The heat.

People who grew up in the summer heat around here can handle it better. Sometimes they even like it.

Not me.

Air conditioning is what made the South habitable for non-natives such as myself. Without central air, we'd be like slugs dropped into the Sahara — shrunken and shriveled unto death within minutes. With it we can make peace with the ferocious sun.

We don't fight the heat, exactly. We just get out of it. Like most of the developed world, we prefer life in the temperate zone.

But some of us (ahem) have married into native culture, bringing disruption to our peaceful situation.

My wife, a lifelong Richmonder, yearns for summer all year long. During winter, she hides from the cold.

"Where are you?" I'll call out cheerily, looking around the living room.

"Over here," a pile of blankets on the couch will reply.

She wears sweaters, complaining of the cold, in June. When the days' average temperatures start edging into the upper 80s, she starts looking hopeful. When they're in the 90s, she finally is happy. The sweaters get put away at last.

"Look!" she says. "Lightning bugs!"

As she begins to blossom in the heat, however, I begin to puddle. The prickly sweat dribbling down my nose makes me irritable. I do not see the lightning bugs because I am swatting at the gnats. Hot is hot, as far as I can tell, fireflies or not. There is no charm in summer for me.

The arguments usually begin at the thermostat. I wipe sweat from my forehead, slink to the thermostat and edge the house temperature down from 80 degrees to 78. She walks by, frowns and turns it back to 80. I wait a while, an hour maybe, and furtively turn it back to 78. Within seconds, she shivers dramatically, complains of chills and turns the air conditioning off.

"But it's hot!" I say. "It's like 900 degrees."

"Open a window," she says.

"Like that'll help," I whine. "Did you know that in Revolutionary times around here, the English army got hazard pay in summer?"

"Go tell it to King George," she says. "Maybe he cares."

On my side, I can argue that we deserve personal comfort. On her side, she can argue that leaving the AC off leads to saving money and the environment, encourages outdoor activities and therefore better health, and returns us to nature.

I consider this a draw.

"Look!" she says happily, fanning herself with one delicate hand. "The flowers are out."

"I hate flowers and it's hot," I say. "Let's go inside."

True, I do not always help my cause. We went on a one-week vacation in June, and before we left, I figured it would be smart to set the air conditioning so the house wouldn't get too hot.

On our return, I stepped into a house the approximate temperature of a refrigerator. She, glowering, investigated. I had turned on the AC, all right — and had left it, for a week, set at 63 degrees.

As part of our reparations agreement, I kept the AC off for four nights running. Every trickle of perspiration that kept me awake those nights was a reminder of my folly. To show the depths of my remorse, I didn't even run the overhead fans. The heat was like a layer of hot Jell-O. I was a mouse that had fallen into an asphalt truck, a crab in a kettle. I was —

Where was I? Oh, right. Look, can I get back to you next month? I need to get inside for a while. I have to prepare. Lay in some supplies — iced tea, ice cream sandwiches, cold compresses. Got to get ready.

We are the hollow men …

You know what's coming next, don't you?

August. HS

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