When Henry James said “summer afternoon” were two of the most beautiful words in the English language, you knew he had never visited Austin or Houston or Dallas in August. He was probably shivering in some damp, frigid garden in London, trying to get warm and dry so his fingers would thaw out and he could write another 1,000-page novel that hordes of people would rave about and pretend they’d read cover-to-cover without going into a drooling coma.
It’s different when you live in Texas. “Summer afternoon” presents two of the most horrible words in the English language. But part of living here is being tough and uncomplaining about it.
Every year, when summer blazes its way to your world and settles in with relentless fury, you don’t complain. You live in Texas and it’s summer and it’s unbearable. Big deal. What did you expect? Shut up about it. Or move to Canada.
It’s kind of like eating raw jalapenoes or stepping on red ants with your bare feet: You just do it. (About the ants: You have to do it very quickly and I haven’t tried it since I was a kid, but it’s still a Texas rite of passage.)
In fact, not only are you supposed to be stoic about the heat — you also kind of enjoy seeing the rest of the world staggered by weather that resembles placing your head and the rest of your body in a pre-heated oven and just staying there till the sun goes down and the temperature plummets into the 90s. Over the years, we’ve hosted visitors from Japan and Germany during the summer, and I was really pretty sure we were going to lose the German to heatstroke. Similarly, the only thing I enjoyed about the recent Bush administration was seeing mobs of reporters getting the vapors following W around his Crawford “ranch,” somehow convinced that moving brush in the withering August heat was something normal people did.
Having said that, I have to immediately recant and admit that our current heat wave is killing me and everybody else I know. We can’t talk about anything else. That’s because this is June — understand? July and August and September, well, of course, they are blast furnaces, relentless and overwhelming. But June has always been fairly mild and forgiving, warm, but not blistering. In June, you can pretend it’s not going to be so bad, that summer can be borne.
Not this year, with its burning, unbroken string of triple-digit assaults. Thursday night, I went to meet a friend downtown at 8 p.m. 8 p.m. — and it was still 102, according to the dash of the car. I cautiously got out of the car and felt something stirring. It was a wind that I believe resembled the blast-furnaces of hell, scorching everything in its wake. Isn’t wind supposed to be cooling and refreshing?
So, here I am, reduced to this: constant complaints about the heat, the heat, the heat. It’s become my enduring excuse for not doing things. Sure, I’ve noticed, finally, that the inspection sticker on my car expired in April, but there’s nothing I can do about it, because there’s no way I can expose myself to walking a few blocks from the filling station. If I get caught, I will throw my feverish, sweaty body at the mercy of the court, I will bleat pathetic excuses about sunstroke and triple-digit dementia, I will refuse to leave the air-conditioned courtroom.
Excuse me. I am now going to open the freezer door and stand there for several minutes.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)