A few years ago I was invited to work cattle with a friend out in west Texas – it was the first time I’d ever been invited to do such a thing. I was about to move up to South Dakota and teach for a few years and he told me I ought to know how to work a herd before I got to the prairie and embarrassed myself. So, another buddy and I made the drive out one night and set our alarms for 4:00am the next morning.
After a long day of overcoming the smell of singed hair and burnt flesh in my nostrils, jamming needles into the necks of baby cows and slicing off testicles and screaming, we took a break and went to a restaurant with plywood walls where we had chicken fried steak. We then dropped the ranch hands off at their trucks, they loaded up their horses and we went back to the house, showered and sat on the porch. It was hot. We tried earlier to swim in the pond out back, but that water was hot as well. So we just sat on the porch in rockers while the sun threaded rays right down inside of things.
When I spoke up to complain about the heat, my friend was quick to offer that we were right where we needed to be – out on a porch, away from the air conditioning.
He told me with certainty that air conditioning killed community.
He then talked about how houses don’t have front porches anymore and how garages slowly moved to the back with alley access.
Who knows if these effects are really a result of artificially cold air – but it’s something to think about, isn’t it?
It hit me the other day when I was driving with some friends through the hill country – the road was white hot like the blade of a sword and around every bend was a new, brighter world. It was like when you’re dozing on your back in the sun and you feel the world on top of you like a hotplate and when you can’t stand it anymore, you open your eyes and start toward the lake and it seems for a moment that the color has been pulled from your vision like an overexposed picture.
On those days driving down a back road, you drive with your hand out the window and catch a wayward bug or piece of gravel – a scar you wear to remember the time you threw yourself against the wind at sixty-five miles an hour when the sun was hot.
Maybe on days like that we keep the windows down because it’s a way to suffer together and be a part of the world and be unprotected and remember that it’s got to hurt a little to be alive.
In May I traveled through Europe with some friends and at nearly every café and hostel, one would jokingly complain that there was no air conditioning. He wondered why the Europeans hadn’t thought to include such an essential part of life.
During his diatribes, I liked to imagine that whoever kept the places we stayed in made a conscious decision to keep their air unconditioned. I pictured a landlord waking up under sticky sheets, looking at himself in a sweaty mirror, putting on a damp shirt and making his way slowly down the hall to a common area in the shade where he sat quietly. Next, the rest would come out and sit as the day burned further down the wick and let discussion grow there in the hot shadows like good discussions tend to do.
Maybe the implications of A/C aren’t as serious as I’m making them out to be. Maybe the slow-moving culture of west Texas was dying before we learned how to keep air at a comfortable temperature and maybe I was just excited to be in Europe. Perhaps, a couple generations ago, we wished to be under the cover of our homes with good intentions – maybe we saw the importance of digging deep into a family unit instead of a whole neighborhood.
But I can’t help but think we’re missing out a little.
When I lived in South Dakota, none of the houses had air conditioning and, though the winters would dip into the negative teens, the summers could reach 100 degrees. During our first year there, my roommate and I took pride in acquiring choice pieces of furniture from members of the community – along with some couches, televisions, cooking utensils and an organ, we also scored three window air conditioning units.
Our house was an icicle. People would stumble through our front door with sweaty Rorschach tests emblazoned on their backs and lay on the floor like a dog on cold tile. The windows stayed shut, the curtains drawn and we had a cave of cool.
But while we sat there, the rest of the world went on outside. The whole neighborhood sat in the shade as their kids ventured to the border of the leaf cover and sprayed passing cars with water hoses. People took slow walks and stood with their arms crossed at the edge of the driveway once the sun dipped behind our house, the embers of their cigarettes like fireflies.
On one particularly hot night I made a drink and returned to the living room where a few of my friends were gathered. Though I was enveloped in community right there, I remember knowing there was another one, a larger one, we were missing out on. And with artificial wind against my shirt, I peeked through the curtains and saw the rest of our block outside posing for a picture – four families represented.
I wish I would have been in that picture with beads of sweat on my upper lip and the hand of a neighbor on my shoulder, squinting against the dying day and celebrating the twilight.