I fucking hate the heat.
Growing up in the great and generally temperate state of Michigan, I rarely experienced more than a handful of days where the thermometer clawed beyond the 90-degree mark. When the air did turn warm and temperatures reached absurd levels, I was able to take comfort in the fact that storms were a-comin’. Oh, yes. Whenever a heatwave would roll through Michigan, you knew what would inevitably follow – lightning, thunder, low-hanging clouds that lauded ominously over your house, and the cool refreshing rainfall that would sweep the heat and humidity away – for a little while, anyways. Summertime in Michigan is the best of both worlds – warm, but not oppressively so, and when it would try to become stifling you always knew that a summer storm would soon creep over the horizon.
I was born in the chill of autumn, and I remember the overwhelming sense of excitement that came whenever I felt that bite in the air for the first time each fall, the faintest hints of pine and maple in the gentle breeze as the leaves turned brilliant shades of amber and gold before slipping from their branches and fell to the muddy grass, where they suddenly lost their splendor. They became little more than a chore at that point, to be harvested and placed in plastic bags to go… somewhere. I can’t honestly tell you where. I never asked. I assume I was too busy being annoyed that our neighbors leaves somehow always found their way into our yard, and every three or four days I’d be grilled for not raking them even though I had just done so.
I fucking hated our neighbors, too. But this isn’t about them.
The autumn houses my favorite holiday, Halloween. Few things match the beauty of seeing red, yellow, and orange explode from every branch of an old, worn oak tree, or the crooked carved smiles of jack-o-lanterns that illuminated each porch at night. I swear that the trees knew, too, what they meant to the spirit of the season. Those leaves would hang on for dear life just long enough to survive All Hallows’ Eve before finally throwing in the towel. By the first week of November most of those leaves would find their way to the sidewalks, rain puddles, and eternally damp grass. Halloween was also when I felt love for the first time. Her name was Sara. We met at a shopping mall trick-or-treet affair that was supposed to keep the younger kids off the streets at night. I was the Red Power Ranger. She was zombie Snow White. We became quick friends.
I remember that autumn being a warm one that stretched into an abnormally warm winter. It was the only time we didn’t have a White Christmas growing up, and in fact we didn’t see any measurable snowfall until February. Sara and I spent Valentine’s Day making snow angels in her front yard, wearing t-shirts and jeans because it was 42-degrees and that was warm.
Sometimes, when the breeze rustles the trees and a chill nips at my cheeks, I drift back to that afternoon, or to that Halloween, or a hundred similar memories of a hundred similar days, and I’m reminded of just how profoundly I still miss her.
In those autumn months, the roaring summer thunderstorms that would shake our trailer and keep me awake at night would calm to a steady rain. These weren’t spring showers. Spring showers in Michigan were always warm, welcoming. It was summer giving us a big ol’ hug as we ushered in the season of road trips to Cedar Point, taking seasonal jobs at apple orchards, and baseball. Fall rain, by comparison, was summer wringing out the last bits of liquid that clung to its rag. It was dank and dreary and bitter and cutting and cold and other phrases for cold because I cannot emphasize enough just how fucking cold it was. But when those biting rains passed, leaving behind the most breathtaking sunsets as the sky exploded in hues of orange and purple, the clouds becoming big tufts of cotton candy.
I remember the excitement of each first snowfall, and the anticipation of turning on the news in the morning and seeing if we were awarded an ever-elusive “snow day.” It rarely ever happened, of course, but when it did we’d treat it as a holiday, and many impromptu games of football were had. As we grew older, football in the field behind the trailer park became games of Magic the Gathering, then rounds of WWF Smackdown!: Know Your Role, and eventually we just stayed home and played Return to Castle Wolfenstein on Xbox LIVE.
Winter taught me about the worth of having a strong work ethic. From the time I was old enough to hold a snow shovel, I was conscripted to shovel driveways blanketed in snow that, during grade school, would scrape against my chin. It was backbreaking labor for a nine-year-old, for sure, but I was always rewarded with a fair bounty; $5 worth of shiny quarters in an unbroken roll. My Seeing the amount of work I was taking on (because I had wanted to buy a SEGA Saturn), my grandmother bought me a pair of “magic” pants. “When you put these on, you’ll stay nice and warm no matter how much snow you play in,” she would reassure me. I wore those snow pants to death, at first because they worked but later, as they stopped reaching to my ankles and my feet became accustomed to feeling like they were walking on couch cushions that had survived a flood, I’d wear them out of habit until I could buy a new pair. Because of an unfortunately-timed growth spurt, I wound up owning three pairs in two years. I miss feeling that chill in the air, and seeing the goosebumps on my pale-at-the-time forearms.
I miss the understated sunsets of the six o’clock hour.
Many moons have passed since I’ve experienced a true winter. I traded it for a career and the opportunity to build a life for myself, and I admit that despite my current situation it has been a more than fair deal. I also traded the bone chilling winds of Michigan and the Northeast for the oppressive, soul-sucking heat of the southern United States. When I moved from Pennsylvania to Austin, Texas, I had happened to move from a place that had just recorded its coldest winter ever to a place that was, unbeknownst to me at the time, about to record its hottest summer ever. Austin was also in the midst of a crippling drought, and in the first year I lived there I saw rainfall a grand total of twice. Southern California has been no better – the number of times I’ve seen actual real-life weather in the past two years can be counted on two hands, and the heat of September and October (yes, October) can be brutal.
I don’t function well in the heat. The abundance of energy that I have for much of the year is sapped away by the sweltery temperatures. I become sluggish, lethargic, and intensely irritable. I feel like my mind is slipping from me, and in those flashes where I feel it return and my brain wants to create my body simply cannot muster the energy to do so. In fact, merely entertaining a detailed thought is enough to put me down for the day. The apathy is often accompanied by crippling migraines; the kind where the sound of my own breathing is too much to bear.
When it reaches its worst, I find myself in dire need of showers. Plural. Two, three per day. When I wake up in the morning, I’m often rolling over into a pool of my own special au jus. When I go for a walk, even if it’s just around the block to kill time while I smoke, I return to a shirt that hangs heavy from sweat. At its worst, I can’t even sit at my computer without feeling the beads of perspiration cascading down my forehead – especially unfortunate when you consider I sit in a leather chair.
You never get used to feeling like the plastic foil being peeled off a freshly-microwaved TV dinner.
When the temperatures aren’t enough to make me sweat buckets, the wholesale sameness of each and every sunny Orange County afternoon now fills me with dread. There is nothing to break the monotony, the “same ol’ same ol'” repetition of it. “Oh. Look at that. Another perfect day in paradise.” Yes, California’s weather is often “perfect.” After all, California was the place that all of my friends and I wanted to escape to because of the bountiful sunshine, warm beaches, and the chance at living a free and creative life. California’s “perfection” is universally reinforced whenever I post pictures or tell people I live in California.
I’ve been told in the past, whenever I’d complain about living in California, that I was wrong. “Oh, yeah, keep complaining about your perfect weather,” or “Uh huh, it must be hard with all that scenery out there,” or “I know, being ten minutes from the ocean must be so rough for you,” would be the most common responses. I’d roll my eyes and sigh, too tired to explain why I feel how I do, and after a few more comments they’d usually drop the matter.
What they never realized, and indeed what most people never bother to understand, is that I am not obsessed with perfection. In fact, I kinda carry a resentment towards humanity’s fervid pursuit of the social concept of “perfection.” To me, perfection implies flawlessness, predictability, repetition, and an even-keeled sameness.
Perfection is safe.
Perfection is boring.
It’s eating filet mignon every day. Yes, it tastes great the first time, and the second, and the third. In fact, objectively speaking it’s never not amazing. But eventually that awe of experiencing the perfect steak fades. That steak, juicy and tender as it may be, slowly starts to become a flavorless paste, and despite its perfect temperature and texture you will find yourself desperate for a $4 hamburger, or a ballpark hot dog, or a cut of salmon. You’ll grow desperate for just about anything you can think of just for the sake of experiencing something different. It stops being special.
This is the problem I’ve always had with California, both its weather and to a lesser degree, the culture here. There are pockets of greatness, of course, and some of the most engaging and extraordinary people I have encountered hail from this idyllic landscape.
They are also flawed; different, standing apart from what’s commonplace.
I’ve always looked for the imperfections in things. Some write it off as me being overly critical, as though I seek them out in an effort to assert some kind of superiority to them. In truth, it’s our faults and impurities, those quirks, peculiarities, eccentricities, and kinks that give us our personalities. We are the total sum of our imperfections, placed against the backdrop of the human canvas. Without them, we become sterile people making sterile art and living sterile lives. We become identical automatons who eat, sleep, speak, think, live the same.
We become sunshine and 78 degrees.
Or maybe it’s nothing so complex. Perhaps it’s something much, much simpler than I’m giving credit for. Maybe I just want to go home?
No. Fuck that.
Flint and Metro Detroit are neglected American warzones that people either use as a punchline to a shitty joke or, even worse, simply ignore because they can’t be bothered to confront the specter of seeing a major American metropolitan area devolve into a third-world hellhole.
I can never actually go back “home,” anyways. The home where I grew up is gone, lost to time and disrepair. All that remains is an empty lot where a dilapidated double-wide trailer once rested. The majority of the homes where my friends lived are either torn down or have burnt down. The ones still standing have been left to the stragglers, drifters, and druggies to use and abuse until the city gets around to knocking those ones down, too. The field behind our home, where I’d play football in the winter and baseball in the summer, has been paved over. The high school that I would have graduated from* had I not joined the Army is closed. My old hangout spot, a truck stop across the street from a porn shop (not bad location scouting on their part) where my friends and I would smoke really bad weed between the parked semis and spend $20 worth of quarters on the Area 51 machine, is gone.
“Home,” as I remember it, now exists solely in my mind. I know it’s a rose-tinted view of my youth, too. I know I’m leaving out the alcoholic step-dad, and my mother’s cancer, and suicides, and overdoses, and abuse, and arrests. But when those first few drops hit my head, or more realistically the bill of one of my many Detroit Tigers hats, or I hear the rustle of the trees as a cold wind catches me behind the ear, none of that matters. I’m transported back to my childhood; to parties and friends and music and car surfing, when I’d spend more time worrying about how I’d get to Grand Rapids to see Tub Ring perform than I did about finding a job or having to paying rent.
The rain conjures memories of driving an hour and a half to go trick-or-treating at Crossroads Village, and drinking skunky beer while building bonfires near a pond near the trailer park. It’s brings me back to Flint Local 432, and hearing the trumpets, trombones, and guitars of the Hot Flashez reverberating of the brick alleyway walls while making out with a girl I knew from school but hadn’t “met” until she commented on my Green and White Chuck Taylors.
Hey – that’s what the vibe of “The Local” was like in my day; bands singing about angsty urban teenage white kid problems to crowds of angsty urban teenage white kids. Some of us moshed, others tried to score pot, and a few more would slip into the bathroom with the rickety door to make it all the way to third place.
When I see overcast skies, I don’t sigh over the momentary loss of sunshine. I embrace the memories of raking giant leaf piles, and gorging on pumpkin pie as my mother slipped a worn copy of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving into the VCR. I’ve always hated that short, but to this day I will never speak ill of it out loud because it’s a part of her childhood and, well, we all deserve to keep something from our childhood.
My mom still has that damn Charlie Brown tape, and I have the rain. I know that I will never be able to go back to the “home” I knew, and in all honesty despite my deep sense of sentimentality for it, I don’t want to go back. S I will gladly accept the rain in its stead.
But only for a little while.
After all, if it rained every day it would stop being special.