17 May 2008

Alien season

The weather here in Portland changed abruptly this Thursday, with the unseasonably persistent coolness and drizzle suddenly replaced by the cloudless skies and 90-plus-degree heat typical of the local midsummer. These conditions normally persist well into September, so they will probably be with us for another four months or so.

Summer is the season which always reminds me that, in a certain sense, I do not quite belong here.

My land is not the land of my ancestors. People who look like me, look that way because of millennia of adaptation to the cool and misty forests of northern Europe. I am used to my land, the land I was born in, but every summer reminds me that I was not quite made for it.

The sunlight of summer never looks right. This searing dazzling melanoma glare sleets down over everything like an ash-dry and uncleansing shower, washing out subtleties of color, turning shadows into blank volumes of impenetrable darkness by sheer contrast. Even through dark sunglasses it is harsh and bleary, an alien light. It is not the light my eyes were made to see with.

The heat of summer is -- endurable. I tolerate the sweating, the need to minimize exertion, the daily ritual of opening windows during the coolness of night and closing them when the outside heats up. A hundred strategies to minimize discomfort do not add up to comfort.

I exist by artifice. Full-body clothing protects my light northern-European skin from the burning, scarring, chromosome-twisting ultraviolet fire which invisibly drenches me. At the office, air conditioning fills the sealed structure with an imitation of the old continent's cooler and gentler air so that I and others like me can concentrate on our work. (I was delighted to discover that the new apartment I will be taking next month, unlike my present one, has an air conditioner.) Even the bus is similarly equipped. It is my privilege as a tool-using ape to enclose myself in small capsules of the environment I prefer, keeping at bay the environment that prevails.

There is nothing wrong with using artifacts to ward off the effects of uncomfortable surroundings. Europe itself could not have been settled by human beings in the first place if they had not invented clothes and mastered fire. The difference is one of degree.

This becomes more obvious in the hotter parts of our land. I am reliably informed that in Texas it is impossible to find any type of office or residential space, however cheap, which does not have air conditioning. Underneath downtown Dallas there is a complex of large air-conditioned tunnels -- light and attractive and with abundant shopping -- which connects, I believe, about fifty of the central city's most important buildings. During the summer it is possible to walk all over downtown Dallas without ever emerging into the actual heat of the surface, even momentarily. It is almost like an enclosed settlement on another world.

Because Portland's summer is less harsh, we have not gone to such lengths to insulate ourselves from it. And so once again I prepare to live through the months of the alien season, awaiting the day when the cool and clouds return and my land once again feels like the distant land which stamped its character on my genes, even though I -- American born -- could never call it home.

3 Comments:

Blogger handmaiden said...

My solution to the problem of overheating is always to shed clothes. ;)

17 May, 2008 21:26  
Blogger Mary Ellen said...

...and here I am today, wishing summer would finally arrive. To me, 60 degrees is not what I consider great weather. I like 80 to 90 degrees (without humidity, if possible).

I heard that Minnesota and Montreal have the same underground tunnel system that links to buildings. They do it to protect people from the cold in the winter. All in all, I think it's a great idea. Wouldn't work for Chicago, I think the city is built on a swamp or something. At least that's what it smells like in the summer.

19 May, 2008 09:15  
Blogger vishesh said...

hmm...my place's climatic conditions are summer-iced as hot,hotter,hottest...

19 May, 2008 10:43  

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