Friday, September 6, 2013
the cooling power of words
In retrospect, I could hardly have chosen a worse day for my historic first blog post. September 1, 2013, was not only the day our youngest son Evan, my technological lifesaver, returned to college; it was also the day that the weather here in Ojai took off its gloves, and revealed that it was wearing knuckle dusters. In other words, it turned h-o-t.
Hotter than 80º. Hotter than 90º. Hotter, even, than 100º.
To put this in perspective, shortly before I left England back in the late 70's, the south western corner where I lived was visited by a heatwave. A serious heatwave. Brutal, even. The headline in the Bristol Evening Post screamed, SEVENTY DEGREES AGAIN TOMORROW: NO END IN SIGHT!
Above 70º, my brain simply checked out.
Two weeks later I arrived (late) to register at UCLA. It was a nightmare. When I went to Oxford I just showed up, found my room, and presented myself at the Music Department the next morning. In the sweltering corridors of UCLA, I stood obediently on the blue, red or yellow line as directed, and invariably found, when I finally reached the head of the queue, that I had mis-heard, and should have stood on the green one. I had first met these lines in the GRE exam I had taken in London earlier that summer, and I had assumed they were fictitious. I was flabbergasted to find they were real. I couldn't have been more surprised if I'd rounded a corner and bumped into the Three Little Pigs.
The campus was unusually hot: 104º, to be precise. My brain lacked any receptor site for 104º; so when a fellow student remarked conversationally, "it doesn't get hot in England, does it?" I summoned the most impressive statistic I knew. "Oh yes it does," I assured him. "Sometimes it gets as hot as seventy degrees!"
I never did live that one down.
It was the following April that I took a train to Washington State and promptly lost my heart. After the brilliant pinks and reds of the bougainvilleas, the chemically intense green of weed-free lawns, and the unrelenting blue of the Los Angeles skies, the subtle colors and dappled light enraptured me. How many shades of brown there were! How tenderly the deciduous trees were brushed with the palest of spring greens! The trees are coming into leaf / Like something almost being said. Philip Larkin's poem rolled around my brain: The recent buds relax and spread / Their greenness is a kind of grief.
I said it out loud: "If there's one place in America I want to live, this is it."
My wish came true, and five years later we moved to Everett, some 25 miles north of Seattle. There, my brain learned to function in temperatures as high as 80º, and I set about recreating some of my favorite botanical corners of Oxford. I loved it all: the rain, the clouds, the way the rays of the setting sun would peek out from beneath the cloud layer and illumine the Magdalen College-inspired red and gold dahlias with breathtaking intensity.
Alas for me, we could not stay: twenty-two years later found us back in S.California, dealing with days, even weeks, of 90º plus. Even, at times, 104º. In Seattle, people become depressed when they don't see the sun for weeks on end; it's called SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. My SAD, on the other hand, is Sunshine Affective Disorder, and I have had to find my own personal way of coping with Too Much Sun.
Here's how I do it: I find a fan, sit close beside it, and rejoice in the amazing fact of physics that moving air, simply by virtue of its moving, feels cooler than still air. I make myself very, very small (reduced surface area seems to help,) and keep absolutely still. I all but stop breathing. It's a lot like hibernation, except that it happens in the aestas (Latin for summer) instead of the hibernis (Lat: winter.) Hence the name: aestivation.
Aestivation. What a helpful word. I rather doubt, however, that the concept will catch on. California red-legged frogs do it, but they're a threatened species. Snails do it—they ascend a grass stalk, construct a membrane of dried mucus across the opening of their shell, and pretend that all that heat out there just isn't happening. But among mammals, not so much—I suppose there are limits to what dried mucus can accomplish.
My husband's grandfather in North Dakota used to wear long underwear year-round. He swore it kept the heat in during the winter months, and kept it out through the summer. My mother's father did the same thing on the east coast of Scotland.
Perhaps there's a word for that too: I wonder what 'long underwear' is in Latin . . .