It was the death of my Uncle Neil that convinced me there are worse things than the summer heat in Phoenix. Snow, for example.
I’d heard my whole life about the horrors of winter weather “back east,” where the slippery terror of icy streets and the housebound depression that sets in around January every year are further burdened by endless gray skies. Being trapped indoors because it was cold outside always sounded blissful to me, no fan of our relentless summertime. And the only thing nicer than no sunshine for months at a stretch, I thought, would be never having to hear another desert dweller say to me, “Sure, it’s hot here, but you don’t have to shovel sunshine!”
And then Uncle Neil died. During the winter. Invited to bear pall at his funeral, I arrived in my Ohio hometown during a wild snowstorm. Piles of brown slush had been plowed to the roadside, but the driveway beside the little house I own there was piled 4 feet high.
A neighbor loaned me his snow shovel — parking on the street in wintertime is illegal, he explained — and I spent the better part of an afternoon unearthing a space large enough to stash my rental car. The next morning, I and three others carried a coffin down a flight of concrete steps. The coffin was very large. The steps were covered in ice.
Sunshine may cause me to perspire onto a perfectly crisp madras shirt, I reasoned on the flight back to Phoenix, but it has never threatened to force me down a cement staircase. Hot weather could cause blisters, sure, but not like the ones I had from shoveling snow — snow that sneakily returned while I slept! — for five whole hours.
I was cured of ever again complaining about how awful the heat is, my raison d’etre of the previous half-century. But if I’ve ceased my whining about our endless Saharan summer, I’ve continued to keep the desert weather at arm’s length.
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In childhood, I’d cultivated a nodding acquaintance with warm air and sunny sunshine, treating them as one might a faraway cousin of questionable morals. Ignoring the heat and all that ghastly brightness came easily; I was bookish, and while the other kids on my block shrieked their way through sweaty August games of tag, I lay curled next to an oscillating fan, staring into the stories of Aesop and Cornelia Otis Skinner. I’d rise only to visit my parents’ chest freezer where, right next to the Otter Pops, I kept a spare bed pillow.
In my 20s, I developed a subterranean life. A young freelance writer, I slept during the day and worked at night. It was easy — and wise, I thought — to live entirely indoors, peering out of windows obscured by black-out shades. My neighbors were out there, inviting melanoma.
Eventually, invitations to any event occurring before dusk or involving “the out of doors” ceased. In middle age, I bought a house situated on a colossal expanse of lawn with which I had no real relationship other than to pay for its upkeep. I liked how close to the porch my driveway was situated, making my mad dash from the heat of the day to my front door shorter. My automobile’s remote starting device meant replacing my car battery twice a year, but also meant the interior was well-cooled long before I had to sit inside of it. My UV-blocking prescription sunglasses offered eternal night, as did the cool, dark basement beneath the house, where I sorted and admired a lifetime of items I’d purchased after sundown. I no longer bought things, preferring to spend my money on the enormous electric bills created by keeping my air conditioner’s thermostat set firmly at 68 degrees.
And although I one day grew tired of monstrous summer electric and water bills, and moved to a high-rise apartment where there’s no lawn to water and my electric bills are rolled into a tidy homeowner’s fee, I have not embraced our mercilessly warm weather. I continue to refine a lifetime of tricks for keeping out of the sun, and away from the heat. I never leave the house without my evaporative-cooling bandanna, my refrigerated socks, and my battery-powered clip-on fan. But every time I open my mouth to complain about the heat, I think of my Uncle Neil, who’s no longer around to enjoy any kind of weather at all.