I might be strange. We just experienced a heat wave in New York City that lasted for days. As I explained to my mother, who lives in Las Vegas and laughed when I complained to her, heat in New York is like no other. It is a combination of heat, haze, humidity, and a secret sauce of garbage, exhaust, and a layer of marine air filled with the lament of seagulls. Poetic, ain’t it? You won’t find it anywhere else. It’s even better on Staten Island, site of the city’s landfill and my hometown.
Here’s why I might be strange (well, one reason). I did not turn on the air conditioning during the entire heat wave. In fact, in eight years I may have used it only half a dozen times and for just a few hours each time. Why? you might ask.
First, I hate air conditioning. I mean hate it. Not only is it always on the Arctic setting, which is great when you walk into a grocery store with your shirt clinging to your back, but I’ve had a thing about it ever since living in Philadelphia during the outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease. Second, I read an article years ago about a black ops guy who arrived in Saigon and started sweating like a boxer as soon as he got off the plane. Then he noticed that none of the South Vietnamese or Europeans were sweating. A bartender told him they didn’t use air conditioning and so were accustomed to the heat. That was also how the locals could tell the difference between Europeans and Americans. Americans sweat like open fire hydrants.
You see where this is going. Not putting on air conditioning became a test of my manhood like taking cold showers for a year (see A Year of Living Dangerously). During the heat wave I actually went back to cold showers. But my resistance to air conditioning and all that it represents–artificiality, toxicity, pollution, noise, technological excess, human weakness, inefficiency, waste, and hubris (I thought of the Saudis air conditioning an entire beach)–became a spiritual exercise centered around the pillars of self-denial and asceticism.
My mother, quick to point out that I am not Jesus and so should not whip myself around any pillar, thinks I have a masochistic streak. I told her I am not a masochist but did go streaking at Ursinus College in the seventies. She said she knew, because my girlfriend’s mother told her. Add humiliation to the spiritual exercise.
There is something to this idea of not acting when you are capable of acting, especially when it’s easy. After all, it’s just a matter of pressing a button on the unit in the living room and the one next to my bed. This is called self restraint. It is a virtue that can be exercised in little ways like air conditioning or big ways. For instance, Italy and Japan are both capable of producing nuclear weapons but have chosen not to for moral and geopolitical reasons. I think an entire country practicing virtue is a good thing, especially when it involves the possibility of nuclear conflict.
Personal virtue has been attacked lately for what has been called “virtue signaling.” As I understand it, this is nothing more than arrogance masquerading as goodness. You might say the same thing about a guy who refuses to put on air conditioning during a heat wave. But I would turn it on if I were living with children or had guests over for martinis and oysters with hot sauce. I don’t expect other people to suffer because of my manhood tests. Then again, I have a good friend who would tell me to shut up and turn on the air conditioning.
“You’re not getting closer to God. You’re just cheap!”
I’ve decided that when the next heat wave hits, I am going to buy ice cream from the truck for the neighborhood kids.
I might be strange, but I’m a good man.
Glutton for punishment? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Feature photo by Thomas Layland on Unsplash. Middle photo, “Fire Hydrant” by Jonathan Parker on Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). This is the fourth anniversary of The Brancatelli Blog, posted every Sunday morning, whether you want it or not.