Intemperate: The Joys of Air-Conditioning
Back in second week of May my air-conditioning had already been running for more than a month. I was born in Alabama and I've been trying to make up for lost time.My mother did not believe in air-conditioning. Neither did she believe in the Democratic Party, the theory of evolution or the use of intravenous drugs. She did not permit her children to attend parties where there would be dancing. She was fully convinced that my brother and I would suffer brain damage if we watched color TV."If boys want to get cool," she would say, "they can go outside, sit under a pecan tree and be fanned by the breeze." By the end of the second week of May in a fetid Alabama springtime, the temperature under the pecan trees in our front yard was already hovering around 107. Somewhere in the distance, there would be the rumbling of thunder. The sky would be green with the sluggish threat of tornadoes and the lurid pulse of distant heat lightning. The air would be thick, unrolling heavily over the pasture, into the garden plot and across the front yard like one great, oozing sludge of undercooked gravy. To breathe it was to know how it felt to be embalmed."Get out and get some exercise," my mother would say, pushing us out into the stolid shade of the carport and letting the screen door slam behind us. Under the carport, on an Alabama afternoon, even in the second week of May, the heat index was something like 205.My brother and I would sit in my mother's car and turn on the radio. On the radio the Dave Clark Five would sing about being glad all over. In the gravel under the carport, the cats would roll in the dirt and scratch at their bellies, trying to scrape the fleas off their fur.Inside the house, my mother slept every afternoon from 3:45 to 4:30. She turned on a floor fan, picked up the Reader's Digest and was out like a light. Summer, she insisted, was a matter of moral conviction. She did not approve of women who talked in public about hot flashes, contraception or the onset of labor. She saw no reason why any white woman should sweat.In summer, my mother said, children should be having the time of their lives. From her bedroom window, some afternoons just after 3:30, my brother and I would hear her warn, "If you boys run down my car battery, you are going to wish you never heard the word radio." In her bedroom the Venetian blinds would come slapping down on the windowsill. The slats of the blinds would begin to move back and forth. Even through the music, we would hear the floor fan, turned on high, oscillating, stirring the bedsheets, beginning to hum.It is not as if my brother and I had been born into world where there was no air-conditioning. In restaurants and barber shops and grocery stores, everywhere, there were window units, droning along clumsily and dripping all over the floors. "Breathing all that air-conditioning," my mother would say to the check-out lady in the grocery store, "is just like breathing a whole bunch of chemicals. Unnatural chemicals in your system," she would proclaim, "are the main cause of cancer." In my mother's grocery cart, there would be three packages of Dream Whip, an 11-inch-long block of Velveeta and four cans of cream of mushroom soup.In my life now there are no more cans of cream of mushroom soup. Neither is there any warm air. Instead, there is a freezer-burned ficus tree in the corner of my living room.I have many friends who did not grow up in Alabama. There are people from places like Minnesota and North Dakota and Wisconsin. In my living room, even in August, they refuse to remove their sweaters. I ask them if they would like a pina colada. They ask me if I have an extra pair of socks.These are people who say, "You're from Alabama. I should think you'd love summer."I say, "You went through Desert Storm. I should think you'd like having sand in your briefs."These are people who, when they were children, were just the sort of children my mother wanted to have. They were the sort of children who had broken arms and bad skin and braces. If they had had to spend years in an iron lung, they would not have winced. They would have accepted the theory that childhood is simply one long boot camp, one great inoculation against the miserable disease known as life.In the summertime, I am sure, they played stickball and rode bicycles and built tree houses and went fishing and camped out in pup tents where they slept alongside large, slightly damp dogs. I, meanwhile, read Balzac and remained very still, plotting my revenge and waiting, counting the moments, counting the days until I would have my own thermostat, when I would never again have to suffer a heat rash, when I would never have to smell my own body odor again.When I went away to college, my mother told me, "I want you to remember all the things your daddy and I have taught you." Sitting in the parking lot outside my college dormitory, she said, "You're going to be learning a lot of new things, but I think you already know everything that's true about life."It was already September, but the asphalt in the parking lot was still glistening, making heat reflections that looked like swimming pools but were just black holes filled with still-sticky tar. My mother was sitting in the front seat of an Oldsmobile. Gnats were swarming around her. She swatted them away with a wet Kleenex.By the next summer, my parents had installed window units in their living room and in all their bedrooms. During the afternoons of that first air-conditioned summer, my mother had stopped having naptime. Instead, she sat, her feet propped up in a Barcalounger in the living room. Every afternoon she watched American Bandstand on a 36-inch color television. "I like that Dick Clark man," she would say, sipping on an iced tea. "When you see him in color, he doesn't look quite so gray."I would say, "Mama, you're sitting here breathing Freon. Color-TV radiowaves are eating a hole in your brain."My mother would say, "My, you're smart after one year of college." She would adjust the footrest on her Barcalounger and say, "Sometimes I wonder why we pay good money to send you to school."My mother spent the rest of her life in her Barcalounger, air-cooled, sipping iced tea, watching teenagers dance in TV. In the middle of May, when the air outside is already warm and the Mother's Day cards are on sale at the drugstores, I turn on my air-conditioning. I turn the thermostat to 63 and turn the control switch to "Auto." I make myself a martini and raise the glass in honor of my non-drinking, non-dancing mother, who taught me things she could never imagine, things about letting the air run, things she never thought I would have any reason to learn.