Living in coastal California can dull one’s Eastern edge, forged in the heat of summer, sharpened by abrasive seasons, the recurrent swelters and chills of true summers and winters.
I’ve always been, as my old business partner David Hodskins correctly put it, comfort-imperative. Maybe that’s one reason I stayed so long on the California coast after David took our company there from North Carolilna for good business reasons: there was only one Silicon Valley, and that’s where we belonged. Temperate conditions certainly helped draw me to Santa Barbara, although I would have gone and stayed anywhere my wife liked.
Once my work life moved to the Net, I could live anywhere with a good connection. For a combination of that and perfect weather Santa Barbara was far more suitable than anywhere else. The dream home we left in Woodside had “IDSL” that was barely better than dial-up, though it did come with sixteen IP addresses and no port blockages — a grace I still miss. Connectivity was much better in Santa Barbara, although it’s better elsewhere now.
For the last couple weeks we’ve been getting ready for a year or more in Boston, where I’ll base myself at the Berkman Center, and where we’ll be within driving and short-range flying distance to Baltimore, where half our kids and our only grandchild live — he was born here four days ago. That’s why I’m in Baltimore right now, sitting on the front porch of that kid’s house at 2am, listening to crickets loud as factory noise while swatting insects away from the light of my laptop screen. It’s 78° outside, weather.com says. But it also says the humidity is 90%, a number Santa Barbara hasn’t experienced since the Pleistocene. It’s been hot every day we’ve been in Boston and Baltimore. The forecast for today is for 98°. Nothing new there, for Baltimore or for me.
I was born and raised in New Jersey and New York, in homes and schools with no air conditioning. By the time my parents finally put a room AC in their house, I was off to boarding school, where there was none. When I went to college in North Carolina, there wasn’t any there, either. None of the family cars had working AC when I was growing up. Nor did any of the cars I owned, from the time I grew up until I bought my first and only new car, a 1985 Toyota Camry. I turned 38 in that model year. Except for one double-wide in the woods north of Chapel Hill, none of my homes in North Carolina had AC, either. We just stuck fans in the windows, and everywhere else we could.
Our summer place in South Jersey not only had no AC when my father and uncle built it, but had no electricity or indoor plumbing either. Those came later, but never any AC. The living area of our home in the pine woods was a kitchen with a big round oak table and walls comprised of salvaged screen windows with hinged glass ones on the outside. My job every morning was to go out and open the glass ones, if they weren’t open already to let the air through.
The forest was a canopy of pine and scrub oak, with a floor of blueberries and huckleberries, which tasted sweeter than any you ever bought in a store. The berry bushes were perfect cover for hide-and seek, and the trees were perfect for building elevated child housing and hanging hammocks in clearings. My aunt and grandmother lived at the other end of a winding trail through the woods, every foot of which I still remember like it was yesterday. A second trail branched off to my great aunt and uncle’s house. Summers were filled with visiting relatives and daily drives to the beach, where we kids would play in the sand and surf while the adults fished or sat under beach umbrellas.
There was no sunblock in those days, just “suntan lotion” that made you smell sweet and look sweaty. We rarely put it on. Instead we just browned in the sun.
On the way home we’d stop at a roadside farm market and pick up tomatoes and corn picked fresh from the fields. I’ll die believing no species of fruit or vegetable tastes better than fresh New Jersey corn or tomatoes. We had a table with a porcelain top, outside our kitchen, where we’d shuck corn after we got home. Inside Mom chopped tomatoes into chunks to marinate in olive oil with garlic and other spices. Odd that my memories of dinner involve no meat other than the steamed clams or boiled crabs (caught by ourselves, in Barnegat Bay), served in abundance when large numbers of guests came over, which was pretty often.
It’s funny to think, as I sit here fresh into my sixties, that none of my memories of those summers involves weather-related discomfort. Yes, we knew it was hot, but it hardly made more sense to note heat than the recurrence of light and dark. Weather worth noting usually involved rain: summer thunderstorms or the edges of stray hurricanes, late in the season.
So I’m thinking that now, in the middle of a summer night on a Baltimore porch, soaked in sweat, that I’m getting my edge back. If you’re not actually burning or freezing, heat and cold are just sensations. You can call them discomfort if you like, but they’re a small price to pay for experiencing nature’s cyclic perfections.
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