Why Unbearable Heat Makes Me Feel Alive

The weather was beautiful yesterday in New York, where I live: warm but not hot, full sun, with a steady but gentle breeze coming off the water. It was what many people would describe as the ideal summer day.

These people are wrong.

Temperate weather is for the meek and small-minded. Instead, give me heat: oppressive, sticky, glorious heat. Heat you can’t ignore. Heat that laughs at bourgeois gestures like sipping lemonade or paper fanning yourself. Heat that makes you feel present and alive in a primal way, like a caveman.

I’ve felt this way for years but haven’t always had the confidence to own it. The tyranny of the pleasant-weather-only, sidewalk-brunch-lifestyle set is real, especially in New York, where it is a cultural norm for rich people to literally leave the city most summer weekends, lest they be caught sweating in public. Hot days are for freaks and commoners.

Well, yeah. So? Most of us are commoners, and if there’s one lesson to be drawn from the public mourning of David Bowie and Prince this year, it’s that many of us wish we had the courage to be freaks, too. This isn’t a tangent: Extreme heat renders the notion of “keeping up appearances” impossible. Past a certain temperature and humidity threshold, no amount of aspirational grooming is going to stop you from looking goofy and uncomfortable — in other words, looking human. It frees you to be weird. If your response to this is to stay inside and nurture your vanity — to engage in a futile attempt to exert control over your panting animal body, instead of giving into the hazy, half-insane summer feeling of being alive — you’re doing it wrong.

(Let me preempt a criticism here and clarify that no, I do not spend three months of the year encased in a layer of sweat and dust, like Pig-Pen. This is anti-heat propaganda, the idea that heat and hygiene are mutually exclusive. On excessively hot days, you go out, you have fun, you sweat freely, you come home, you shower, you put on clean clothes. It’s not rocket science.)

It’s not a coincidence that the two best, most vivid summers of my life were spent in two heat hotbeds (awful pun intended): Ghana and Mississippi. In both, I was living in close quarters with groups of young strangers, though beyond that the circumstances couldn’t have been more different. There are only two constants: (1) In pictures from the time, we look terrible — glossy from sweat, but not in a remotely sexy way. Yet (2) I formed some of the fastest friendships of my life in both places. (They didn’t all last, but neither does summer.) It was too hot to pretend to care about each other’s siblings or favourite movies. We skipped the bullshit and got straight to the joyfully co-existing part: Playing soccer with our Ghanaian neighbors in the blinding mid-day sun. Drinking cheap beer in the bed of a pickup truck under the unbelievably starry skies of middle-of-nowhere Mississippi. Life felt heightened. When faced with heat that threatens to overwhelm my senses, I’ve found that my senses tend to step up their game and take in more of the world.

It’s possible to live as vibrantly and immediately in milder climates, of course — but not easy. Pleasant weather begets pleasant living. Heat brings out the strange. One day, I’ll probably need “pleasant.” But for now, you can keep your temperate outdoor brunch. I’ll take heat.