On my birthday this year, a slightly older lady referred to me as a “young pup,” which proves that everything is relative. However young a pup I might be, I fight the urge every day to proclaim that the best days are behind us. It seems that the effort and time required by nearly everything in the past has taken on a golden glow as I look back through the filter of 48 years. All that’s keeping me from geezerhood is the lack of someone who’ll listen to my observations. That’s, in part, why I blog.
The NYT has an article on people who are choosing to eschew air conditioning in these days of living simply and not being able to afford basic utilities. And I feel vindication by its publication. For years, when I’ve mentioned that my apartment — on the top floor of a concrete block building in which the heat rises floor by floor throughout the summer day — tends to get a bit balmy, the response is always, “Don’t you have air conditioning?” And I have to admit that I do, but don’t always use it, which marks me as someone who can’t tell his ass from his elbow. But the AC isn’t much of a solution. It cools only the immediate area around it, and the cool air it creates surrenders to the hot air immediately when it’s turned off. I prefer to let the hot air out the window and camp in front of a fan or two. The AC is expensive to run all day and evening, and when my neighbors all think alike, we tend to knock out the power in the building, and then there’s no fans or AC for anyone.
This summer has been one of the best I’ve ever weathered. The air conditioner pouts in the corner window, unused and no doubt building up extra mildew to serve chilled next year. The humidity is down too, and nearly every day this summer has reminded me of my favorite September afternoons when the breeze comes blowing through the windows to distract me from whatever football game is on.
The folks in the NYT article have discovered the secrets of keeping cool without the relatively recent necessity of air conditioning — drinking a lot of liquids, shades during the sunny hours, not using the stove or oven — all things hard-wired into my brain from life in a house built before central air. But if I think back, there was another solution for hot, humid Wisconsin afternoons when there was no relief.
I remembered this one morning while walking around Lake Harriet. Maybe it was a random sniff of dead fish floating by on the breeze, or the symphonic clanging of metal connectors on the sailboat masts or hearing the far-off chatter of kids climbing into a car, but something took me back to any of a hundred miserable afternoons when, as my bike and I were about roast in the shimmering air of the driveway, my Mom would emerge from the house with a towel and say, “See if anyone wants to go to Summit Lake.” I was off, rounding up those friends lucky enough to be home and free to leave for a few hours.
Summit Lake didn’t have one of those manicured beaches where you could stretch out a towel. There were quite a few broken bottles lying around and the garbage cans were stuffed with 12-pack containers and crushed cans, which meant that there was always a swirl of yellowjackets when you got too close. A raft made of 55-gallon barrels floated 50 yards offshore, which was used by every adult as a quick visual reference that the kids were swimming too far out. Swimming to and climbing onto those weathered planks was a milestone in my early days, although I’d like to forget the day I swam under it and emerged between barrels to see the creepy lifeforms that clung to the bottom.
We swam until we were pruney and the sun had lost nearly all its dominion over us. My Mom took one quick dunk under the water, then called us all in, stuffed us into the back of the pickup, and headed home. The breeze and the smell of the lake on your skin was intoxicating, and you now knew that life could feel at least this good, at least for a moment. When the heat of summer was gone, we missed it. On those rides home from Summit Lake, it was like your soul was refreshed. And air conditioning is a poor substitute for that.