I do not believe in or practice air conditioning. For years I have bored and annoyed friends, acquaintances, people I met at parties, with my intransigence on the subject.
Except for stays in hotels where the windows are sealed, I haven't spent the night in an air- conditioned room since 1972, the year we moved into a suburban tract house, the only one in the neighborhood--perhaps in the world --without central air conditioning. We spent nine years there--sweating humans, a doleful- looking dog, cats that glared resentfully or simply went away for long periods of time.
Why? Because after five years in an air- conditioned apartment in Washington, a congeries of vague memories and prejudices had taken on the character of a full-fledged crank theory: air-conditioning is stealing summer from us.
Part of it, of course, was simply nostalgia for summer nights of childhood: sleeping comfortably while the big exhaust fan in the second- floor ceiling pulled cool air through the room, playing outside a rowhouse apartment while parents sat on the stoops, all of us waiting until it was cool enough to go inside to sleep. Ikenberry, the Marcel Proust of perspiration.
But I think there's more to it than that. What air conditioning has done to us is to make it so nice, so civilized inside, that we have lost any inclination to venture into what appears to be a burning hell beyond the glass sliding door. True, many American males will go out into the mid-day heat to perform some extraordinarily strenuous exercise, then dash back in. Families will truck themselves to King's Dominion for hours of dutiful suffering for the children. But few will sit out on the patio or the shady side of the building, reading, drinking a beer, listening to the birds, the traffic or the neighbors. In fact, about all a suburban back-yard malingerer hears these days is the hum of a dozen or so big central air-conditioning units, each maintaining thousands of cubic feet of living space at 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
A shame, really, because there is, I have discovered, a certain blissful contentment in simply sitting back and letting the heat take over. I felt it intensely a couple of summers ago at a family reunion in a church in Franklin County, Va. We were all wearing a good deal more than was comfortable in that stifling church hall (in fact, I don't recall ever seeing one of my farming relatives shirtless or in short pants). Overfed on fried chicken and macaroni salad, sweating mightily as the introductions of various branches of the family went on, I was surprised to feel myself growing more and more contented. The heat was totally unescapable. My shirt was wet clear through, and there was nowhere I could go, no recourse to a higher state of undress, nothing but acceptance. Acceptance of warmth, the natural state in which all things flourish, right down to the tiniest and most virulent microorganism.
I live now in an old house built to handle summer. It has a porch (you can get these on new houses these days; they seem to have re-invented them) and some trees, and with the help of a motley collection of fans purchased at drugstores over the years it is pretty comfortable. As far as I can tell, there isn't an air conditioner on the block. I'm writing now in an air-conditioned office, and I suppose it's about 95 outside. I wish I were home.