I was born in Washington. I know heat: The wet washcloth-on-the-forehead technique, which works for two minutes (until the forehead warms up the washcloth). The rackety-rackety fans which move the hot air around so that if you sit just so and hold very, very still, the heat is bearable.
The gallons of coke -- and the feeling of torpid desperation when you run out of ice cubes because no one refilled the trays. The stalled cars, gasping and dying on the shimmering concrete of the 14th Street Bridge, as tempers and radiators boil over.
So how is it that hot weather manages to surprise us every summer? "103 Degrees -- Record High For This Date." I find that hard to believe. It seems to me it was always 100 degrees, or 110.
Heatstroke was the symbolic way to die in Washington. We all wilted, some more than others. The consummate way to go in Hot Air City. Except that it was never the hot-air purveyors who went, but rather those on the receiving end. Life is unfair and so is weather.
I have never been able to understand why we tolerate it. In winter, a half inch of snow is sufficient to put us out of action, much to the amusement of visitors from Buffalo or Minneapolis. If we can have Snow Days, why can't we have Bake Days? Pick some arbitrary cut-off point like 100 degrees and sensibly demand that everyone head for the hills, or at least stay home and wield those washcloths.
My token bow to vacationism has been to switch from my dress-for-success duds to my sundress when the mercury passes 100. Did you see Barry Goldwater, dressed in tie and pinstripes, dripping through his peroration at the Republican Convention? A fierce fountain. So entranced was I by the spectacle, I could not hear the words.
I wanted to say, "Take off your coat, old friend. It's okay. Lightning won't strike. Civility does not demand that great a sacrifice. You have had your last promotion and we are plenty impresseed that you are standing there at all. Why, in Washington we even have a presidential decree permitting us to doff heavy clothing in heavy heat."
I suppose it is too late for us to change now. If our forefathers waded through Washington summers before the invention of air conditioning, who are we to complain? I visited Mount Vernon with friends once on a 100-degree day. As we gratefully panted our way to the front door, we were informed that Mount Vernon has "Colonial air conditioning," otherwise known as open windows.
The patient guides in their floor-length dresses had tiny electric fans which may have cooled at least their ankles, but I would not have switched places with them. Although George had without a doubt found the least muggy hilltop in the area, Potomac breezes were no match for Home Sweet Air-Conditioned Home -- whence we hied in a hurry.
Parisians may not live in the world's most efficient or productive society, but they have long since solved the August problem: They storm the shoreline en masse and leave the sweltering city to the mad tourists. As we Americans achieve lower productivity and a more stagnant economy, perhaps even we Puritan work-ethic bores can learn how to profit from sloth in August.