According to almanac.com, “the phrase ‘Dog Days’ conjures up the hottest, most sultry days of summer. The Old Farmer’s Almanac lists the traditional timing of the Dog Days: the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending August 11, coinciding with the heliacal (at sunrise) rising of the Dog Star, Sirius.”
We have a heat wave this week. Compared with the suffering all around the globe our experience isn’t bad, but for us it breaks all the records and already at least six people have died. I have no right in the world to complain ever, what with a roof and running water and an excellent system of public transportation and an indoor desk job. But this does take extra safety planning and responsibility, and some checking up on our senior citizens, especially if they live alone.
At Baptist church up the street, on days like this the men and boys (always looking handsome and poised in their dark suits with jacket and tie) set up enormous industrial fans in the invitingly dark cool basement and carry all the hymn books and Bibles downstairs for evening services. During the sermon they turn off all but the small cooler fan. After the service this Wednesday, Pastor announced “We have the usual cold drinks in the fridge. But on this circuit we can run either the main wind-tunnel fan, or the coffee machine. Take your pick. Those of you who wish for coffee tonight, you can enjoy your hot beverage while watching the rest of us swelter.” (They’ll spend all day today like every Saturday, setting out in the church van to neighboring towns to hand out surprisingly thoughtful Gospel leaflets and strike up conversations with anyone they can find. An intrepid lot in all seasons.)
The computer can’t take the heat up here at the top of the building, so remote work is out. For commuting this week it’s wise to be out at the bus stop by 6:30 and at work by 7:00. Then I can leave after 3:00 to shower and nap at home. This week though there was a terrible Hazmat truck fire on the highway at 1:00; it’s a real wonder that no one was injured. The interstate was closed in both lanes for about six hours. At 4:00, knowing nothing, I stepped out of the office and was baffled to find bumper to bumper traffic gridlocked in all directions. One trucker was sitting in lotus position on the sidewalk, meditating in the shadow of his rig. The streets were silent. Because we’re not back East, there was not a car horn or inventive invective to be heard. I wove along between cars for block after block, past stalled buses on my bus route. Finally I walked 45 blocks homeward in easy stages, from one spot of shade to the next. The route was straight west, and I had my Solumbra/Sun Precautions UV-blocking sombrero, the next best thing to walking around with a manhole cover on your head. Otherwise I would never have ventured it; I would have gone back and spent the evening at the office. In the end the side streets away from the highway were starting to ease up, and I caught an air conditioned bus for the last 20 blocks. During the wait at the stop in the shade the atmosphere felt light-headed and queasy; since the walk was unexpected I didn’t pack water, but will pack it from now on.
Naps in hot weather are important, at least three a day. Lying on any floor will work in about two minutes for instant deep sleep. I need to tape a big sign to the bottom of my desk saying Hey Mary, it’s okay. You just woke up with no idea where you are, but this is the office. You crawled under here half an hour ago and were out like a light. Some day my boss can find it there after I retire.
It’s helpful to stay active during the cool hours; this morning at 6:00 I walked down the street to photograph the sun rising over a dewy field of grass under the tall trees. Then before sunrise and after sundown, there’s drinking water to buy 2.5 blocks away at the triple-filtering machine in the grocery parking lot. It’s the best water available for only 40 cents a gallon, five trips a week at 22 minutes per trip. Then I’ve been hauling every bucket of wash water down 42 steps from the fourth floor and around the corner to the garden, about 16 pounds for two gallons at 8 minutes per trip. The leafy greens and sweet potatoes are in peak good health and good looks; watering them takes at least 10 buckets, a total of 80 minutes or one hour 20 minutes of stairs in a day. Food prep is at 5:00 am or 11:00 pm, so that means toting wash water downstairs at all hours. (Even at midnight it’s a lively neighborhood. Teenagers hang out at the picnic table, dogs need walking, the smokers are on night watch in a companionable klatch, and there is always some Wing Family paragon out gardening with a flashlight.)
This week’s menu has been green juice from the leaves in the garden, raw beets and jicama and carrots and cabbage, pickled daikon radish, mobile-pasture egg, brown rice with coconut oil, kimchi, banana for potassium, bread (Ezekiel 4:9, made with no flour or oil or sugar), and dark chocolate with roasted peanuts and raisins. Also quarts of water with stuff added to it, not listed here because nobody needs dietary tips from some teacher of Russian language. That’s a really privileged diet, not that anyone I know would want to share it.
After rolling straight out of bed in my surgical scrubs, I run right out to get the water hauling done early. Neighbors and their dogs have the same idea, starting off their dog days early for any breath of coolness. Gentle agreeable sensitive women gravitate to high-energy alpha male working breed dogs. These muscle-bound buckos belong at West Point, hauling carts of provisions to the cadets and walking the perimeter on night duty. Instead they are losing their minds at sight of a squirrel, barking in random meaningless ways, dragging their owners all over, and blocking the sidewalk. All these familiar animals mean no harm, so I always straighten up, shoulders back, hands on hips, feet planted solid, engage the owners in friendly fashion, and obey Cesar Millan’s rules: No touch, No talk, No eye contact. Then the dog will ratchet down the drama and beeline for the nearest fire hydrant. But this week, all the dogs find me mesmerizing. They approach with head low, ears back, tail dropped in a slow wag. They give me a long sniffing over (sniffing is excellent dog manners), give my ankles and hands rapturous licks, then curve against my leg waiting for a pet, gazing up with soft eyes. I’m YOUR DOG. Take me home! This across-the-board response was a pleasant puzzlement. Neighbor S. said “They’re not responding to you. They are just in a good mood because at 5:30 in the morning the air is cooler. They would react that way to anyone.” But I suspect it might be because this week I’m up & out for water first, without clean clothes or a shower. Thanks to kimchi and sweated salt, I’m canine catnip.
Last October, 9 months ago, someone with idle time on their hands rang the fire alarm box for the building. In the milling crowd outside I noticed an unfamiliar new neighbor. She stood apart from the conversation groups on the lawn, so I went over and introduced myself. She told me her name and apartment number. But she seemed preoccupied, so I gently backed off and left her in peace. I didn’t know that during the alarm while everyone stampeded down from upper floors she fell headlong down the stairs, and hit her head. (The fire department checked the building, turned off the alarm, and then talked to her and tested her for a head injury. She was shaken up, but not injured.) In these nine months I didn’t see her again.
Last winter, six months ago or so, during some spell of bad weather I took half a dozen travel postcards (25 cents per pack at the thrift shop, all mixed destinations), wrote messages, and slipped the postcards under the apartment doors of all our elder neighbors. I added my phone number and urged them to call if they needed anything. No one called, so I could only assume that they were doing okay.
Yesterday an unfamiliar number showed up on my cell phone. I frowned at it, planning to let it go to voicemail, but for some reason answered the call. A cultured animated voice greeted me warmly by name, saying “I got your travel postcard from Scotland! Thank you so much! Somehow my house sitter placed it in a big stack of sales catalogues and magazines. Finally I’m going through that old stack, and here was the card from you! So kind!” She talked with enthusiasm about how thoughtful and touching it was, and how much she appreciated it.
I stood there holding the phone, tuning in to the features of her speech as my mind raced around, trying to match it to any voice I’d heard before. I’ve read that Jack Benny sent some 50 postcards a week, with greetings or thanks to anyone who crossed his path. I was certainly not in his league. But clearly my fondness for mailing postcards and slipping them under doors must have come home to roost: I had no idea who was talking to me. Scotland? Who in the world did I write to with a Scottish postcard?
This dear lady treated me to a good conversation for 15 minutes while I prayed “Holy Father in Heaven, please help me figure out who this is.” Then, bingo — she mentioned the neighborhood. That was a possible grasping straw. I made a few general observations about my building, she shared a few of her own that showed that she lived here too. Score! Surveying the apartments up and down the halls and floors, I figured out who this was. She asked me, “You do have a proper air conditioner and fans, don’t you?” I didn’t in fact. “Our heat spells are so short,” I explained, “that I just nap in the closet. If it’s bad I’ll go sleep in the bath tub. Is there anything I can get you right now?” Well, all she needed was laundry quarters. When I knocked on her door with my quarters, she insisted on my taking home a truly beautiful tall cooling fan with fancy attachments, and that I come in and take a break in her air conditioned room. I sat on the floor to cool down for an hour. She told me about her life in public health, starting with the early front lines right in the Castro District for the terrifying emergence of GRID (today we call it AIDS), her fight to get health providers to accept and treat gay male patients. That was an exciting story, and a delightful visit. The heat wave brought a whole new connection.
Now it’s 9:00 am, much too warm for this computer. Time to log out until next time.