It's common this time of the year in Washington to hear endless griping about the heat and see those predictable articles in newspapers and magazines denigrating the month of August.
That's an easy attitude to adopt, especially on workday mornings when the starch melts out of your pressed shirt before you can get to the office, or when that bouffant hairdo gets damp and flattens against your forehead.
It's that kind of cause-and-effect of August that makes standing up for the steamy days the greatest of perverseness. On a recent afternoon, amid the usual moaning about the heat on the elevator, I chimed in with, "I really don't mind the heat so much." The same colleagues who six months ago were bellyaching about the cold and clamoring for sunshine and warmth looked at me as if I'd confessed a fondness for Shiite fanatics. But as a native Washingtonian who has seen more Augusts here than not, I'm tired of it. The complaining. 'Cause I can take the heat.
What pushed me to the limit with August bashers was watching my 8-month-old boy make a discovery a couple weekends ago that sent chills down my spine -- despite 98 degrees in the shade. Sitting in his blow-up, two-ring wading pool that was slowly filling with water in the backyard, he picked up the garden hose, put it to his mouth and took a drink.
Now this is not the same visionary caliber as, say, burning bushes, but it did provide me a moment of unusual clarity. My son's first sip from the garden hose revealed some of what was good and reliable and oddly comforting about this city's annually oppressive weather. It is one of those little pleasures of growing up that seems never to change. No matter how old you get, water straight from the hose always tastes the same -- but only if the Fahrenheit is feverishly high.
Not that I'd argue that the dog days of summer are our best friends. But there is something mysteriously appealing about them that makes a swallow from garden hose the same kind of communion as the Kashubian search for the flower of the fern. Still legendary in parts of Poland, the magical red blossom is said to defy science and logic (ferns by definition never flower) by blooming only on midsummer midnights when, as the Slavs say, the earth is "like a child that knows a poem." For two weeks now, I've gulped a lot of hose water, kept an eye open for red flowers in the night, and noted some other small miracles of summer's hottest days:
One afternoon when I stepped off a downtown curb, the road went rubbery underfoot. Passing pedestrians probably took me for a mad dog or Englishman (a typical reference in hate-the-heat stories). But I couldn't resist trying to push the softened paving with my foot to wrinkle the street, all the while recalling earlier and simpler days when road surfaces were made with less asphalt and more tar and would regularly bubble come August. Kids would snap tar blisters and then track the black gunk into the house.
As far back as I can remember, picking smallish ripe tomatoes, sun-warmed and unwashed off the vine, and exploding them inside the mouth has been a ceremony of midsummer. Disregard the warnings of scientists and mothers that the tomatoes should be washed first.
No other time of the year creates enough heat to rise from paving causing different densities of air that can refract the strong sunlight to orchestrate those water mirages on the highway's horizon. It's as close as many get to a desert phenomenon.
Even dunderheads who might occasionally still ask, "Hot enough for Ya?" or "It's not the heat but the humidity," seem to recognize the absurdity of doing so in this weather -- perhaps more of a blessing than a miracle.
Few astronomical happenings that reveal themselves to the unaided eye match the power and presence of an oversized, red-hot August sun low in the sky. Many people who have been surprised by one of these remember where they were and what they were doing at that moment. One of these balls of fire once loomed so large and unexpected in my rearview mirror as I was motoring through West Virginia that I had to pull off the road to make certain it was the sun.
If hot nights make for uncomfortable sleeping, they also provide an extraordinary alternative: Sitting outside after midnight in 82 degrees is more reminiscent for me of late evenings on a porch of the Grand Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince or the after-dark exotica at a sidewalk cafe in Copacabana. Hot nights tend to transport the mind toward memories of better hot nights elsewhere.
Ever take a long pull on a cold milkshake or an iced-tea on a hot day only to feel like the side of your head was about to burst? Ever wonder why? This one is purely scientific. Called the "Ice Cream Headache," the short-lived but intense pain occurs, says Dr. Seymour Diamond of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, when near-freezing temperatures of something consumed overchills the spinal palatine ganglia, a nerve center at the top of the mouth that connects to the temple area of the head. But who said all miracles had to be pleasant?
A few years ago a friend here in Washington staged a massive party for several hundred people under the auspices of what he called The Ban-August Committee. It was a grand blow-out, with guests in swimming suits and cutoffs and bartenders and waiters pushing hot-dog and ice-cream carts dressed in black tie. Nonetheless, the month of August and all its heat remain an annual event -- something some of us even look forward to. My friend's committee? It lasted just one whopping good night ... in August.