Summer is finally here, and while for me that means more time to read outside, enjoy the heat, and take trips to the beach, for many it means that they get to turn on the air conditioner and live in a meat locker for the next three months.
It’s interesting to me that air conditioners often begin making their first appearances of the season in weather that isn’t much hotter than seventy degrees. This March we had a bit of a “heat wave” in Philadelphia, and some shops and restaurants were climate controlled such that you’d wonder if they were trying to build igloos in the back. I ran into an acquaintance during this “heat wave” and kvetched mildly about all this. He agreed that the natural air was perfectly fine. Of course he’s European, and our good friends from the Continent seem to have a chillier opinion about air conditioning than we Yankees.
The thought has crossed my mind that air is like music these days: people will like any type of it, as long as it is not real. By all means, goes this philosophy, listen to music on your iPod or to a soloist bellowing into a microphone, but don’t ever listen to live, natural, acoustical music, whether it’s the fast fingers of Emmanuel Ax or the slow hand of Eric Clapton. If noise is not being pumped through a speaker, many people think they can’t hear it. I know this sounds ridiculous, but trust me. I’m a musician. I deal with these things. Similarly, when it becomes ever so slightly too warm to sit in the house with the windows shut, the air conditioner goes on. Heaven forfend we should open a window!
One of the ironies of our age is that, while we pride ourselves on being so open to everything—open-minded, open-hearted, and far too often open-mouthed as well—we are really closed off to just as much as any other generation has ever been. The only difference is that the prejudices have changed. Sometimes I wonder if we’re cool to anything that takes more time and effort than it takes to prepare a microwave dinner from Boston Market (very tasty, by the way). We can’t even open our own windows and break a healthy sweat.
In these giant refrigerated buildings loom white elephants—very, very large ones, to be sure. We’re talking, of course, about obesity. Lest you think I speak from a sense of moral superiority, please realize that I have been in this situation, and corrected it. When I lost forty pounds I was able to appreciate so much more weather because I was carrying around far less superfluous insulation on my frame. The simple fact is that most of us are far too fat for our own good, and air conditioning is not helping the matter.
A little anecdote:
When I was a child, my parents installed central air in the house. It was quite a major event, the kind of thing the adults talk about at picnics for months. It was all very wonderful and probably to the good, but I noticed something shortly after the system was put in. My brother and I got lazy. Previous summers had been spent outside, riding bikes and playing baseball and talking to the neighbors. But in the air conditioned world, these activities were much curtailed. So the question is this: does the air conditioner make us lazy, and therefore fatter? Does it make us less friendly with our neighbors because we don’t see them as much? That latter question is borderline ridiculous—or is it?
I am not arguing for the abolition of air conditioners, or even of iPods, but it would seem that we have lost all sense of proportion. Someone once remarked to me that the American mentality is that if a little bit of something is good, a lot of it must be great, and we seem to have gone that way with the air conditioner. By all means, an elderly couple at home on a hot July day needs an air conditioner, and it certainly makes for a wonderful sleep aid. But what about those among us who are able-bodied and sensible enough to dress for the weather? Is it really necessary to have these machines cranked 24/7?