Summer in Alabama

From Joanie:

I’m a Yankee. Even though I now live in the South, and say things like “y’all” and “bless her heart,” I can’t get rid of some things from living in the north.

The biggest thing is weather. I grew up in southwestern PA, in a “humid continental cold temperate” climate, which really means: record lows in the winter, record highs in the summer, and fewer sunny days than Seattle.

There’s a running joke where I grew up that we have four seasons: almost winter, winter, still winter, and road construction.

My husband has learned that I didn’t actually like anything about the climate in which I spent the first twenty odd years of my life—it was cold most of the time, driving in snow and rain on mountains REALLY sucks, and since we don’t need air conditioning most of the year, when it’s hot enough to need it, everyone ends up getting a cold.

We say the weekend in late September/early October where the leaves have changed but it’s warm enough to only wear a light jacket is worth the rest of the year, but we’re lying.

We like the cold and the snow and the slush and the “slippy” (yes, slippy, not slippery—regional dialect thing) roads for one reason and one reason only:

It gives us something to complain about.

And if I’ve learned anything about my German pre-Revolutionary War immigrant heritage on my mom’s side, complaining about the how cold the weather is isn’t just a privilege, it’s a right.

Which makes living in the South problematic.

I now live in a “humid subtropical warm temperate” climate. I know “normal people” don’t have as much fun as I do with climate maps, but who wants to be “normal?”

The coldest it gets in Alabama in the winter is, to me, still shorts weather. In fact, it’s the kind of weather where the mountain kids with whom I went to school wouldn’t even bother to put socks on with their sandals.

Yes, I went to school with mountain people. But that’s another story, for another post.

This is about my first summer in Alabama.

Those of you who read this and know me well may be wondering, didn’t she get used to a warmer climate when she lived in Texas?

Well, no. 

I got heatstroke my first week in Texas. I went home for holidays and spent my summers at music festivals, many of which were abroad and in wildly different climates (Italian islands, Vancouver, B.C., Nairobi, Kenya, etc.).

So my first summer in the South was not long after Michael and I moved away from Texas.

See, we’d finished school (ok, he’d finished school, and I had grunt work for my thesis that I had to do over the summer to complete its online publication, a new requirement that was wrought with my octogenarian-like computer skills and grammar and footnote issues that made me want to claw my eyes out).

And we didn’t have jobs or anywhere to go. Lucky for us, his grandmother had recently moved (on her own volition) to an assisted living facility, and had just put her two bedroom, two bath condo with a balcony with a view of the city of Birmingham on the market. She really wanted some grandkids to move in so 1) she could help us out and 2) it didn’t look like it was unoccupied in a tough market for a seller.

So we packed up, and moved into this fabulous condo. Did I mention that it had a pool and was gated with a guard?

Michael got a temp job for the summer, and I finished my thesis while singing and writing freelance for the summer.

For those envious of our “freedom,” let me just say: this was one of the most terrifying times of my life, financially and personally. I was in a city where my husband grew up and knew where everything was, and knew lots of people. I knew only his family and friends, and couldn’t even get to the grocery story without tears and bad neighborhoods (I refer you to my previous post on GPS).

In all this, I found solace in the excellent public library system of the city of Birmingham. We were 1.5 miles from a branch. I tried to go several times a week, and even though I still had reading burnout from my thesis, I managed to read lots of trashy novels that summer.

The problem was this: Michael’s 1986 Buick Riviera died in Waco several months before our wedding. We donated it to charity, because no one even wanted to buy it for scrap. Since we both lived within walking distance of campus, and the grocery store and my teaching job were the only places we ever needed to drive, we decided my 2007 Honda Civic was enough.

It was. Until we got to Birmingham. Unless I dropped Michael off at work for the day, then returned to pick him up, I was car-less. It was only a minor inconvenience given that I was freelancing and doing lots of work from home. And because my mother-in-law took pity on me and picked me up many times, she eased my anxiety about getting lost when I drove to a church I’d been to forty times.

However, as anyone who’s ever shared a car in a place where a car is a necessity knows, you can begin to feel trapped.

Now, I like to walk to things, and I missed that about my graduate student lifestyle just weeks before going to Birmingham.

You might be seeing where this is going.

I decided one day that I would WALK to the library. After all, at only 1.5 miles, it would mean a 3 mile walk there and back, which would be adequate exercise.

Silly Joanie, walking is for Yankees.

On the way there, I was honked at about 15 times, and the sun beat down on me with increasing ferocity. I felt like someone had placed a giant glass bowl over the section of the earth where I was walking, and that with each step, it got more and more humid. I suddenly felt that my t-shirt and shorts were made of heavy brocade instead of cotton, and that my carefully applied sunscreen had been burned through like a bug under a magnifying glass.

I got to the library, and sank into the air conditioning with relief. I was already feeling a little sick at this point, and stood at the water fountain chugging water for about 15 straight minutes.

I went in and sat in a chair.

I realized, I don’t want to read a book. Not now, not ever. I thumbed through magazines, and sat down when I felt dizzy.

And I realized I had two choices: 1) call Michael and admit that I’d been an idiot and had done something potentially dangerous and unhealthy and beg him to leave work for a half hour to pick me up and drive me home or 2) walk home, throw up, and take a nap.

I think the answer here is obvious.

Another 15 minutes at the water fountain to prepare me for the trek back, and I was on my way.

Here’s the thing: this condo, it’s in Homewood. Anyone from Birmingham knows what this part of town is like geographically. For those of you who are unfamiliar, it’s uphill both ways.

I felt like I was climbing Mount Everest—well, a Mount Everest thrown into a tropical rain forest and populated by giant trucks with hicks screaming “hey baby!” out the window. Seriously, why do people do that? Does it ever work? “Mommy, how did you and daddy meet?” “Well, son, he yelled the most inappropriate comment out the window of his vehicle, and I just fell head over heels…”

I was already grumpy from the sun and the heat, and the beads of sweat that made me feel like I’d never had a glass of water in my life EVER and I couldn’t spare the moisture to yell, “You’re creepy!” back to the goons as they sped past.

I trudged in and collapsed on the couch.

When Michael got home, he started to complain about the heat. He told me it was one of the hottest days that summer.

I had walked 3 miles in over 105 degree heat with 90% humidity. It felt like 3000 miles in a steam room.

I’ve mostly learned my lesson about activity in the heat—I keep my workouts to the earliest and latest parts of the day as it gets hotter, and I make every effort possible to go back north in the summer so I can miss the worst of the heat.

But you know, at least I’ve got something to complain about…