Some (don’t) like it hot.
When the North Country hits the 90s, something peculiar happens to the delirious glee with which many of us anticipated summer: Our ardor cools overnight.
It’s part of our Minnesota and North Dakota heritage — at least if your forebears, like mine, consumed way too much cod, favored fur-lined hats and were bred to survive in the Arctic.
Winter is normal. This season? Too much sweat.
Oddly, we do dread the endless dark that Scandihoovians are perfectly adapted to endure. We spend those long, frigid months dreaming of the fabled Mediterranean clime … and sneaking to Arizona to sample it. But when our own summer finally brings the Northland to a simmer, we revert to that other ancient ancestral tradition: We complain ceaselessly about the heat.
I’ve been singing the song of my people since the Fargo-Moorhead broke the all-time record high last week, inflating to 95 obscenely early in the season.
“Is it hot enough for you?” TV meteorologists rejoice. Hallelujahs are heard from tender transplants from toastier locales. We natives? We utter pitiful sighs, seek deep shade and shift into neutral.
My personal reaction to this weather is coded in my genes. I come from a long line of stalwarts who slept with the windows wide open in January … who divorced from down coats when the temps top 32 … who tossed a light jacket into the back seat, just in case, on April Fool’s Day, then noticed it again in November.
I’m programmed to perspire when the mercury oozes above 70. Ninety degrees? That’s toaster territory. When you can’t touch the steering wheel without potholders, enough is just enough. Sleeping on a hot night is a nightmare. So is figuring out what to wear, especially when America hasn’t witnessed your bare upper arms for decades.
Add high humidity — something everyone raised on the prairie absolutely loathes — and you have the perfect prescription for ick. Everything feels sticky, from doorknobs and leather upholstery to your own underwear. Even walking from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned office is enough to work up a nasty film of sweat.
And I hate sweat. Avoiding it has shaped my whole life. I blame this odd phobia on the trauma of growing up before anyone had even dreamed of the wonders of air conditioning. It has left a permanent mark, not only on me, but on most of our corps of pre-1960s pioneers.
We were raised back when the admonition to “be cool” really meant something. Do you recall those hot times, too? The days took on a rhythm in the stifling ovens we called “home.” Up early, Mother opened all the windows to catch the fresh morning breeze. By noon, she was making her rounds shutting them again and drawing the shades to repel the sun. Midafternoon, she plugged in the noisy Sunbeam fan to move the hot, humid air around, accomplishing little more than ruffle our feathers.
In the evening, we’d pile into the car, crank down the windows, open the vents, and cruise around to cool off. On the best nights, we’d end up in Mayville, N.D., at the A&W, where a root beer float offset the tropical misery like nothing else could do.
And there was the rock-lined cellar. I read “Gone With the Wind” and the entire Encyclopedia Britannica down there between the water heater and the coal bin, perched on a rickety old wooden kitchen chair under a single bare lightbulb. That damp, earthy scent and delicious chill were heaven … until I was busted. Like all parents of the ’50s, Mom was deathly afraid of letting her offspring get overcooled, suspected of inducing polio in those frightening days of the epidemic.
Then a miracle on Main Street showed there was a better way. Businesses began adding central air conditioning as the economy boomed. Suddenly grocery shopping wasn’t nearly the chore it had been, back when the best you could do was linger by the meat case.
I remember the envy neighbors felt — but wouldn’t admit — as new houses popped up with venting to accommodate air conditioning, the ultimate status symbol. Frugal homeowners poo-pooed it. Who’d spend so much for so little, given (they said) the few truly hot days our locale afforded?
My mother-in-law was one of them. She held off her husband, who spent years trying to convince her to add it to their brick home on the prairie, which retained summer heat like a pizza oven. When he finally prevailed, she continued to grumble a bit — “I hate those holes in my ceilings” — until she fell in love with the thermostat. From that point on, theirs was a house where you always wore a sweater.
As for her son, Russ — like me — would give up hot water if it meant he could keep the air conditioning. In summer, even here in Minnesota, it’s just not cool to be hot.