Sweating your way to enlightenment

MONDAY EVENING, after more than a week of temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, I broke down and went to Home Depot to buy an air conditioner. I know you're probably laughing hysterically right now, since anyone who's seen approximately one-third of a local news broadcast lately knows that air conditioners (and even those primitive objects called fans) are about as available as Cipro was after 9/11. But my house, whose only cooling system is a bedroom ceiling fan, had taken on the qualities of a Bikram yoga studio in Al Aziziyah. Figuring the more time spent in the air-conditioned car the better, I drove to Home Depot, only to begin to suspect I actually was living in Al Aziziyah.

Inside, at least 200 people were queued up in a line snaking across the entire front of the store. With kids and elderly family members in tow, they leaned against their shopping carts as if the carts were pieces of driftwood in a vast, thermal sea. Babies cried, flies swarmed, armed militiamen paced menacingly (or something like that; it's possible I was starting to hallucinate). In the final moments of my naivete, I approached a man in the line and asked what all the fuss was about. Was Home Depot selling tickets to an Eagles reunion tour I hadn't heard about?

"Air conditioners," the man told me. "I think there's a truck coming soon. Everyone took a number, but I don't think there are any left."

There's a truck coming soon? Everyone took a number? Was this Hollywood or a refugee camp? It occurred to me that it was too bad air conditioners weighed so much, because it might be useful if the National Guard would drop them out of helicopters like food rations.

Outside in the parking lot, row upon row of pickup trucks and SUVs boxed each other in as they searched for nonexistent spots. The air formed a dingy layer over the darkening sky. Toddlers slipped from their parents' sweaty arms and fell to the pavement. Hyenas darted among the wretched throngs, screaming out bloodcurdling calls and nipping at people's flip-flops. It was all too clear: The apocalypse had come. On top of that, I never got an air conditioner.

Personally, I think this weather is an extremely sophisticated publicity campaign for Al Gore's documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." But we apparently can't be sure whether the recent heat wave -- I heard one weatherman call it a "heat storm," which sounds much more dramatic -- has much to do with global warming.

As interesting as the causes are, the effects of preternaturally high temperatures can be even more fascinating. We're told that heat waves tend to cause an increase in robberies, domestic violence and homicides. But the anthropology of heat manifests in deeply personal ways as well, leading to a kind of existential malaise that, even in our own living rooms, can seem just as ominous as the mood in a gridlocked, jampacked, sweltering Home Depot parking lot.

In the days after the heat storm began, I had the nagging sensation that somewhere along the line I made a very wrong turn. Like the mercury itself, the list of "should haves" -- should have gone to law school, should have bought a sleek condo rather than this "charming" but oven-like house -- rose higher as the days wore on. In one fleeting, electrolyte-deficient moment, I even started berating myself for not having gotten married in my 20s. Sure, the men I dated in that era would have represented an express train to divorce, but a few of them had air conditioners, which probably could have been worked into the settlement.

These issues might seem to transcend one heat wave, even a bad one, but I'm pretty sure they all come down to the social politics of climate control. Face it, air conditioners are a luxury item. Especially central air conditioners. And in Los Angeles, where it easily can be 20 degrees cooler by the beach than in the Valley or the downtown area (where I live), there's no ignoring the fact that housing prices run in inverse proportion to average temperatures. If you want to keep cool, you have to pay -- either in the form of a ridiculously expensive home or a ridiculously expensive energy bill.

I've decided that taking some time to evaluate my life -- even if it merely involves feeling sorry for myself and waiting for hours to no avail in line at Home Depot -- can be a good thing. For all the meteorological disadvantages of inland living, the heat has afforded us non-beach-dwellers a unique opportunity to beat Westsiders at their own meditative game. After all, many of them pay thousands of dollars to sit in the desert, consume nothing but water and think about how they're going to fix their lives as soon as they can resume eating solid foods. We've been doing all that for free. With all the money I'm saving because I don't need an ashram, I could probably even afford air conditioning. But why quit while I'm ahead?

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