Tuesday, August 7, 2012

I THINK I'M GONNA HAVE A HEAT STROKE (or, "How I accidentally lost ten pounds.")

There was a time in my life when I didn't go outside at all.  I sat, cool and quiet during the hot, oppressive Louisiana summers, tucked away inside of our house in the city while all of the world outside seemed to go on without me.  I had become a victim of technology, a broken-thermostat of a woman that drove around for twenty minutes until she found a parking spot near the grocery store entrance.  I had come to see air conditioning as something that was not negotiable.  I was terrified of the heat, so much so that somehow I forgot that in the deep, stormy south, heat was once a part of daily life.  But I was about to learn a very powerful lesson, and now I want to share it with you.

Our lives have changed completely since we moved into this old dog-trot home.  I remember a certain day in late March/early April, when my husband looked at me and sort of winced.  He was worried about the heat that would soon reach down from the skies and take over our sweet little house in the woods.  I, however, was busy trying to face the changing of the seasons with optimism; I tried to ease his fears by promising my husband that I could "take it." I knew that our month-to-month restoration budget was terribly small when compared to the overall cost of a new HVAC system, and besides that we still had a lot of renovating to do before we even reached that point, so I convinced both myself and Shaun that I had the solution.  "We just need a few window units, and we'll be fine."  I actually said those words, and at the time I believed them.  We bought a couple window units and installed them in our boys' bedroom and in my office.  The rest of the house was to remain air-conditioner free, because somewhere deep in my heart I wanted to know if I could make it through until the fall.  I wanted to see what it was like to live "back then."  I was determined--I was going to beat the heat, and the heat was not going to beat me.  I was going to prove that I could have survived in the 1800's.  I was going to be a modern-day settler--a hippie, of sorts, unafraid of mother earth.  I vaguely remember saying something about how the human body had evolved through the years and learned to adapt to earth's climate, and that we shouldn't be afraid to experience the wonders of our climate.      

Everything was hunky-dory when spring came and blew gentle winds through these old hallways.  I made it through the upper sixties, then the lower seventies, and I was just fine.  "Isn't this lovely," I thought when the grass turned a bright shade of green and the little wildflowers started to bloom in the field by our house.  And then, just as suddenly as they had appeared, the seventy-two degree days evaporated and summer was here.  The temperatures inside of the old dog-trot climbed to the upper eighties, and I proudly kept my chin held high.  At some point in that brief window of time before I began to melt--quite literally--I remember thinking, "I'm awesome.  It's hot outside, and I'm just fine."   

That's when it hit.  Just as I convinced myself that I had conquered my greatest fear (having no air conditioning), a heat wave hit and the temps soared to above one-hundred degrees.

If you've never lived in Louisiana, let me break it down for you.  Summer here is akin to a barbecue--only forget the chicken and the steak.  In the deep south, you're the one being barbecued over open flame.  The heat is so obnoxiously oppressive that it's almost laughable.  When exposed to a southern summer without the aid of cold air, normal life comes to a halt.  Ice melts so fast that you wonder if you put any in your tea at all.  The clock on the wall seem to slow down its frantic pace between the hours of 12 and 6 PM, when the day is so sticky and humid that your body actually stops allowing you to think because your brain is consuming too much of the precious energy that your body needs to cool itself down.  

Sometimes I think about the glorious, sweaty-smiled summer that all of our literary greats talk about in books--only I know the truth now.  Those brilliant authors  slant their words in such a way that the heat sounds magical, perhaps even friendly, but summer down her ain't a thing like they describe.  The truth of the matter is that without air conditioning, your diet drastically changes and you drop a lot of weight.  (I think that I've lost ten lbs, but I'm not sure because my scales melted in mid-June.)  Don't believe me?  Allow me to explain.  After the hour of 7 AM the thought of drinking a hot cup of coffee makes you break out into a sweat.  After noon, the thought of drinking cold coffee makes you want to vomit.  Hot soups?  You can keep them.  If you're living without cold air, your diet should consist of fruits, veggies, and popsicles of any color but purple. (I don't know why, but purple popsicles make me cough.)  But that's not all that I've learned about summer since the season unleashed itself upon this little house.  You know those little spaghetti-strapped sundresses that skinny teenage girls wear?  When you're in a house that has no air conditioning, those dresses become your best friends.  Suddenly you find yourself loving those little cotton, sleeveless numbers that once made you feel as though your arms were the size of tree trunks.  Your perception of what you look like, and what you should/should not wear is forever morphed.  I sooooo get it now when I see an elderly woman standing in Walmart wearing a dress she bought in the junior's department.  In fact, I feel like high-fiving those women and asking them to welcome me into their ranks.  

It was some time in late May when I discovered that my mascara stopped working.  I opened the little tube, fluttered my eyelashes while looking into the mirror and opened my mouth wide.  (We all do that when we're applying mascara, don't we?)  I began to wave the little wand this way and that, expecting my eyelashes to turn dark black and appear to be much thicker than nature had intended.  But to my great surprise, nothing changed.  I shoved the little stick back into the tube, tried again, and realized that something was wrong.  I read the little fine print on the bottle and laughed out loud.  Keep stored in a cool, dry place.  What was I supposed to do--keep my make-up in the refrigerator?  In the end, the answer to that question was a resounding yes.  But in the end, I also decided that wearing make-up in extreme heat was pointless anyhow.  It's like having your hair styled right before you go water-skiiing--utterly pointless.  

But despite the drastic changes in my diet, my wardrobe and my appearance, there have been a couple of advantages that I have discovered in this unforgiving summer heat.  For starters, I now know that I can do it.  I can survive in the heat, I can make it until fall.  I might look a bit wilted, and I may need to bathe several times a day to make myself feel human.  I may have no choice but to put my organic deodorant on the top shelf and place the "real stuff" on the bathroom counter.  But I now know that can make it through, and the knowledge is so freeing that I no longer fear June, July, August and September.  During the fall and winter months that preceded our move into THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK, I had this wonderful notion that I wanted to go without air conditioning just to "see what it was like to live back then."  Now that August is upon us, I can honestly answer that question.  I know what it's like--and to be perfectly honest, it's not as bad as I thought it would be.  Yes, it's hot as Hades.  But it's not the end of the world.

So just how did "they" do it back in the good old days?  I'll tell you exactly how they did it--they didn't know any better.  But they also had another advantage.  The climate was a wee bit different in Louisiana one hundred and fifty years ago.  It wasn't as hot, but in the winter things were a bit colder.  A few months ago I read an article about a blizzard--yes, a blizzard--that swept through this area only a few years after THE HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK was built.  I can't even begin to imagine what it was like to live in this house during that year.  Summer would have been horrifically hot, and then winter would have swept through the center of this house and frozen the Taylor family to the bone.  Temperatures during that blizzard were in the -10s and (gasp) below.  I can't even fathom a one hundred plus degree difference between summer's high and winter's low.  And I sure the heck can't imagine what it would have been like to live through those conditions in this house.  But by the time winter's over, I may be singing a different tune--we'll just have to wait and see.

Hubby gave me a strange look a couple of days ago.  "Winter's comin', ya know," he said as he looked at me and sort of winced.  "It's gonna get cold in this house.  Are you sure you wanna work on the kitchen next instead of getting the HVAC installed?"

"I can take it, Shaun," I said as he laughed.  "We just need a couple of heaters for the boys' room and my office, and we'll be fine.  And besides--I wanna see what it was like to 'live back then.'"


3 comments:

  1. I live in Shreveport and am envious of your wonderful old house. I've often thought of our ancestors living in this climate. Also, they wore LONG DRESSES and petticoats. And WORKED. Chopped wood, picked cotton, and often a cooling shower was not an option. Isn't it amazing?
    I'm a potter and was mixing glazes last summer in a long rag of a dress, and just couldn't imagine how it was to wash clothes in a huge pot over a fire wearing a long dress. They were tough! If they can see their progeny from heaven, sitting in AC working on the computer, they must be shaking their head.
    Great post. Thanks! Hope the kitchen remodel goes well.

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  2. Thanks for commenting, Debbie! I have been thinking a LOT this summer about how it would have been to live in this house in the 1800s. Those men and women were tough as nails! Perhaps that's what we're missing in our modern world--the knowledge that this world shapes our lives, not vice versus. It has been a hard, sweaty lesson to learn, but I'm so glad that I've learned to respect the seasons in a way that I never did before. And I've definitely gained a newfound respect for the pioneer settlers of northern Louisiana!!!!

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  3. I think about this subject alot too, living in Texas and suffering the same fear of the heat. It's really more than they didn't know any better, they had NO option. I think there are probably lots of little tips and techniques they used to get through those days that have been lost to us. We read about some things, like cold suppers, naps (or at least laying down during the worst heat) in the afternoons, sleeping porches, but I'm sure there's much more we'll never know.

    I also have read, and believe, that A/C, along with the auto, both changed our society very drastically. And not necessarily for the better.

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