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Some like it hot

by Brian Clarey

I moved to Louisiana in August 1988 from the coastal, watercolor world of Long Island, where cross breezes from the Atlantic and the Long Island Sound swept the summer heat into a bearable scirocco that smelled, always, faintly of the sea. There’s plenty of water down in New Orleans, too — the whole city is surrounded by the river and Lake Pontchartrain — but it contributes little in the way of heat dissipation and may, in fact, make summer in the city even less bearable. The first time I caught a whiff of the Mississippi River in August the smell was so strong it had its own color. And that color was brown. Over the years I became acclimated to summer in New Orleans, the oppressive heat that in the essays I wrote at the time I likened to an obese lover, the thickness in the air and the haze hanging over the river, the hot breeze that would sometimes burn the back of your throat. People can get used to anything, and I found ways to deal with temperatures in the upper nineties and the constant barrage of high humidity. I drank a lot of water — along with everything else I drank. I took a couple of showers a day and spent the rest of my time coated in a wash of sweat. I found a few pools I could dive in when things got unbearable and I knew that just about every afternoon a wild rainstorm would smash through town for a half hour or so, cooling things off a bit. Sometimes I would stand outside in the middle of it. One summer I decided to ignore the heat. I just went about my business — conducted, admittedly, mostly at night — refusing to wear shorts because I thought they were silly, and maintaining my cool-weather wardrobe of black shirts and boots. And now I’m here, somewhere in between, where it gets real hot and there’s no chance of salvation from an offshore breeze or tropical downpour. I don’t mind it at all. Since summer bore down on us with its full force last week, I’ve found myself talking about the weather, one of those innately human and generally empty gestures that we all use to fill the silences. “Hot today.” “Indeed it is. Looks like we may get some rain later in the week, though.” “We sure could use it.” Like that. I hear a lot of complaining about the heat, like people are surprised that it’s suddenly sweltering in North Carolina in June. I get rationalizations like lack of rainfall or high-pressure systems or atmospheric something-or-other to explain why the sun is burning so brightly — like there needs to be a reason for heat in the summer. Usually I’ll play along, offering a grimace or a shake of the head. But the truth of the matter is that I don’t really mind the heat — from my own perspective, it’s not even that hot — and I actually kind of like it. I like getting into a car that’s been baking in the sun for hours on a blacktop lot, letting the heat, oven-like, seep into my joints. I like it when the sun paints my skin bronze and subtly lightens my hair. I like to sit by the pool and let the heat wash over me until I can stand it no longer and then jump off the diving board. I like working out in the yard until the heat makes me just a little bit lightheaded and then drinking huge amounts of water and fee it replenish me. I like to sweat, allowing my body to rid itself of toxins and other waste — your skin is like your third kidney, you know, one of the best eliminative organs in your body. Heat is primal, primordial and sexy. It’s vital and life-giving. It’s our reward for surviving through another winter. Summer, and its attendant heat index, is what we’ve been waiting for all year long. And you should stop complaining about it. Really, there’s no use in complaining about the heat. It’s like complaining about mosquitos: There’s nothing you can do about it, so just suck it up and deal. If you think this is bad, picture life the antebellum South, before household electricity, air-conditioning and year-round ice-making. Depending on the color of your skin, you’d either be sitting on the veranda in seersucker sipping on ice tea or a mint julep, or the guy operating the fan to keep the seersucker guy cooled off. Or you could be in Dallol, Ethiopia, where year-round temperatures average in the mid-90s. Don’t come crying to me when a string of days in the 90s reduce you to a sweaty, whimpering mess. My advice: Let is wash over you. Have a glass of water. And be glad it’s not a frigid winter, when there really is something to complain about.

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