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  • Loren Niemi

Heat and Light


The predicted high for today is 95 and humid. Yesterday it was 101 and felt like it. Welcome to summer, and what, in the climate collapse era, promises to be a hot one.


The air-conditioner is humming.


I am thankful for that.


It also reminds me that I have spent much of my life without that bearer of convenience. Growing up – in Albuquerque, we didn’t have anything. Not even a fan to move the air as my mother enjoyed the dry heat. In Buffalo/Hamburg, nada. Summers seemed unnaturally short and it was the light not the heat I noticed. In high school, no air-conditioning but my mother did make a concession to fans as summer in Minnesota was not a “dry” heat.


My first paid job was assembling industrial shelving in warehouses where the heat was baked into the walls and though there was pools of shadow, they were no relief. I’d begin to sweat when I picked up that first shelf and not stop until I got home to shower. Not knowing better I drank more soda than water and was constantly thirsty.


In college, I laid sod one summer. I knew better than to drink soda but still could not drink enough water to make that bearable. It was hot, dirty work, and gave me a respect for all those immigrant and day laborers who pick or tend, dig, unload, or whatever all day every day for minimum wages.


I drove taxi summer nights in ’69. Even now the feel of the slow cooling of the hours between midnight and 8 AM is palpable. It was the right time to be in the city. Most nights, driving was a relief from the heat of the day and especially the heat of the U of M’s printmaking studio in what was commonly referred to as the old West Bank “factory” before it was demolished to make way for the Anderson Library. The smell of ink, the feel of the thick cotton fiber paper in stifling heat gave way to Hennepin Avenue at 1 AM with the windows down and some boozed up passenger in the back seat. By 6 AM when the workers who arrive at the offices and shops before the suit and ties did were in the back seat, the smell of leaves and grass underlined rosy dawn.


There was no air-conditioning in most of the Christian Brothers houses I lived in – the Novitiate, the Scholasticate, De La Salle. I think there was air-conditioning in the Brothers house at Xavier in Appleton, but I left there at the end of the school year and spent most of the summer as a camp art instructor, living in a very not air-conditioned cabin with the other male staff. It combined the classic scents of sweat, dirty clothes, spilled beer and lake shore dead fish accumulating week after week.


By time I got to Winona and the farm, anything would be a relief.


Except for the fact that nestled in the valley and next to the Mississippi River, Winona in the summer is always hotter and wetter than you’d expect. There was no air-conditioning on the farm. The old house, which lacked insulation, was desperately cold in the winter and sauna like warm in the summer. As an aside, I think there were a few years when we hung a new fly strip from the kitchen light to mark the season. Summer was a time of Michael’s tending the garden, while Gregory and I welcomed and said goodbye to a steady stream of visitors come to get a taste of “back to the land” or just get out of the city for a while.


As Vonnegut would say, “so it goes.”


The summer of ’83 was the Circle of Water Circus tour. Not just heat but every variety of heat. The on again, off again of building the show in Alma, WI. It seemed that most of the time, we lived and worked outdoors. There were the shows in Rochester, where we had a tub of ice water backstage, so a performer could step out of the ring, doff the burlap and plasticine buffalo head costume, plunge their own head into the tub, and suit up in the next costume for the next act. The shows in Clinton with elephant dung, St. Louis under the arch, Fort Defiance at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers Memphis, Natchez, New Orleans are all stories I tell though usually summer heat is not front and center. Heat was part of the reason I started the tour at 185 lbs. and ended it at 160, drinking as much beer as I could manage to maintain my weight.


The years I lived in Chicago, there was no air-conditioning for my two rooms on the third floor of Pat & John’s house. The heat arrived in May and left in September. In between, if I opened the window for whatever breeze the passing red line train might provide, it wouldn’t relieve the labor that finally burned out the small desk fan that was supposed to help cool the computer and myself working on it. In those years I traveled extensively, often going out for a week, coming back, unpacking the suitcase, doing laundry, repacking and going out again. On those trips I saw a lot of air-conditioned hotel rooms, conference centers, classrooms, offices and every time I came back, the shock of Chicago heat was a body blow.


Maybe it’s my age but I appreciate air-conditioning. I appreciate having a release from the oppressive and cumulative effects of heat and humidity. I prefer Northern climes, and in fact, do not mind winter. I do not want to live in the South and the reason is not simply “Red state” Republicans. As much as I appreciate hearing the hum of relief, I recognize that it comes at a cost. Not only strain on the electric grid or my utility bill, but with climate collapse, the hot is getting hotter for longer and the droughts, fire seasons, storms and flooding, the strain on what we expect of this world is changing as well. We might deny having to cut back our carbon habit but sooner or later, like that poor fan in my Chicago garret, the mechanisms of comfort will fail.


What does this reminiscing have to do with storytelling and the celebration of the Summer Solstice?


All these memories and sense impressions are fodder for stories, oral and written, both ones I have told and for ones that might yet be crafted. I started with a single image from childhood and followed a thematic trail. There are bits and pieces, places and times, I have left out and could easily go back to and explore. I have left out the people who also inhabit these sense impressions but they too can be fleshed out in poems or stories. Much of it is “ordinary” life but it is that very ordinariness that makes me consider the what and how these moments are both personal and universal.


What kind of stories? How we suffered and survived or thrived would be one kind. Humorous would be another. Like performing at the Illinois Storytelling Festival that time when it was so hot, we put baggies of ice on the top of our head and a straw hat over that in an effort to stay cool. Sweat much? No, that’s ice water melt running down my face and I’m happy for it. Cautionary tales. How one summer I did not drink enough water, frequently enough, to avoid dehydration and fainted/passed out while playing a pick-up baseball. That I did it once was accident, that I did it a second time a week later was an indicator that it was time to hang up my glove.


We begin with the facts of time, place and people. We select a beginning, and an end, then fill in what is needed to get us from the first to last. Not everything we know or could say, but the right details to move us along and let that world we are sharing be seen in another’s mind’s eye.


What are your stories of summer heat?


As to the Solstice, the day is 15 hours, 36 minutes long here in Minneapolis. Even as we celebrate the season, we begin to lose six hours fifty-one minutes before arriving at the other end of our wobble, the winter solstice. It is ongoing. Add and subtract as we tilt and twirl. There is a beauty to it that we might not recognize. The great cosmic dance.


As I once said in a story, we are standing here on a spinning ball that takes 24 hours to complete one rotation, partnered with a moon, fixed in visage, taking 28 of our rotations to make its own circle, while the two of us in turn take 365 rotations to circle the star that is our fixed point. That star and ourselves, along with the other planetary bodies and moons are in one spiral arm of what we call the Milky Way galaxy, 27,000 light years from the galactic center. The Milky Way itself is making a 240-million year spiral while moving away from the original creation of Universal everything some 12.8 billion years ago.


Yes, it does make you wonder. At least it makes me wonder, why so much of our living is preoccupied with worry and misgivings, strife and violence. Life is short and better when we care about and for each other. Cue Monty Python: “So remember when you’re feeling small and insecure, how amazingly unlikely was your birth, and pray there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space, ‘cause it’s bugger all down here on Earth.“


Be well. Stay hydrated. Enjoy the cool if you can and the heat if you must.