The trouble with being a writer is that all the stupid things you’ve ever said are out there in the ether, just waiting to embarrass you.
Take a column I wrote in 2003, in which I bragged that I was too cool for air-conditioning. I considered it a barrier between me and authenticity (yes, I was in my mid-20s and pretentious).
“I live with the heat,” I wrote. “I rely on fans and cold drinks to cool me on all but the hottest days. And I love it because it’s real.”
Well. In the years since, I have seen the error of my ways. Summer heat is real, but so are sweat and heat stroke and nights where you eat cereal for dinner because you can’t stand the thought of turning on the oven.
Summer heat is real, but I have another word for it: gross.
It was my cat, Tommy, who saved me from myself. He arrived the fall after my AC-free summer and promptly tore through all my screens, leaving gaping holes that let him out and bugs in. I repaired the screens; he escaped again. I closed the windows for the winter, and he stayed safe inside. But when summer rolled around, my little apartment turned into an oven. And so I entered the era of air-conditioned comfort. It just wouldn’t have been fair to him to keep the air turned off.
It was for him, really. Of course it was.
With all that time in air-conditioning, I sort of forgot how hot summer could get.
In my original column, I wrote lyrically about my parents’ house, an old Victorian that remains un-air-conditioned today.
“When it got hot — and that was often — we opened the windows wide, drank something cold, made fans out of accordion-folded paper. On really sweltering days, we headed down to the basement for a few minutes, where the cool, damp air enveloped us until we felt able to handle the heat again.
“At night, we turned on the oversized fan in the hall ceiling. The whirling blades sucked the day’s hot air up through the house and out the attic windows, bringing cool evening air through the downstairs windows and making the long, sheer curtains dance,” I wrote.
Turns out the memory was better than the reality.
A few summers ago, I visited my parents with my then-toddler son in tow. It had been nearly 15 years since I’d spent much time in their house in summer, and I happened to arrive in the midst of a heat wave. With highs approaching 100 degrees, the attic fan couldn’t do much. We spent time at the library, the mall, Target, the bookstore: anywhere with an AC system that would let us escape the baking house. It worked for a few hours. But within 5 minutes of arriving home, we were scorching again. Will’s little body, completely unprepared for the heat, was flushed; when he woke up from afternoon naps, his head was damp with sweat.
After a few days of this, I cried uncle. We headed to Target and bought a fan, which created a breeze even if it didn’t cool the air. I moved it around the house with us and tried not to feel like a failure.
It was for him, really. Of course it was.
During those hot days in that Victorian-era home, I thought of the mothers and children who’d lived in this house before my family. Over time, the mothers had to wear corsets, or layers of petticoats, or pantyhose. There were no sprinklers for children to play in, and no microwave shortcuts to prepare the evening meal. Early on, there hadn’t been ice or fans. I thought of all this, and how hot I was even in a tank top and shorts, even with a ready supply of ice and sweet tea. And when I got back to my own house, I could have knelt down and kissed my hard-working air conditioner. I was almost happy to write the next check to the power company. Almost.
“Turn off AC, savor summer,” read the headline on my column all those years ago. These days, I savor summer, all right: Corn on the cob, cold watermelon, lightning bugs at dusk. Afternoons at the Saluda Shoals splashpad, evenings at Blowfish games, movies on the Riverwalk. But a little summer heat goes a long way. So I enjoy it in small doses. And when it gets to be too much, I close the windows, pull down the shades and turn on the AC full blast. Air conditioning is real, too — real comfortable.