IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE HEAT, GET OUT OF NEW JERSEY

Burlington County Times, August 19, 2002

One night last week, when the heat index hit 105 degrees, I staggered into the house from the garage and said, “Remind me why I’ve said I’ll never move to Florida.”

My nine-year-old son barely glanced up from his Nintendo Magazine as he answered, “Alligators in the sewers.”

Good answer, but not the one I was looking for.

I’ve always said I could never live in Florida because of the heat and humidity. After this latest heat wave, I’m ready to visit my parents in Boynton Beach so I can cool off. And the most effort I exert is to go from the air conditioned house to the air conditioned car to the air conditioned office or store.

It was so hot that I even postponed an appointment to get my hair cut. I figured it would be a waste, as my hair would frizz out as soon as I left the salon.

The day of the new appointment turned out to be even hotter.

Global warming? Normal weather fluctuations? A botched experiment at Roswell? I don’t know or even care why. I just know it’s hot. And humid. And I can’t imagine how earlier generations – or I – ever grew up without air conditioning.

I keep thinking about farmers in the 1700s, wearing heavy woolen clothing, doing hard outdoors labor without mechanized vehicles. Or middle-class Victorian ladies, swathed in layers and layers of crinolines, their ribs crushed by whale-boned corsets. I’m sure the weather must have hit the high 90s then, too. What was their secret for surviving the heat? Or didn’t they survive?

The worst part of this weather, to me, is that I can’t go outside and enjoy my garden. The best part is that I can’t go outside and see how well the weeds are doing.

Everything is wilted except the crabgrass. It seems that crabgrass thrives on dry conditions. Even the pokeweed and jimson weed – two invasive, noxious, poisonous plants that have decided they love growing under the bird feeders, probably because the birds planted the seeds there originally – are droopy.

I go out twice a day to water the container plants on the deck and refill the bird baths (after scrubbing them to destroy any mosquito larvae). Even after being watered, the tomatoes are still rather sad-looking, although the green peppers are bright green and thriving. Actually, I should clarify that last statement: the leaves on the pepper plants look nice; the fruit keeps getting blossom rot.

I’m not sure why I’m bothered about the condition of the veggie plants. The squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, and ground hogs have eaten more than we have. Just the other morning, I chased a ground hog off the deck railing, where it was sniffing the tops of the tomato plants. When I went outside to water a few minutes later, it stuck its nose out of a hole leading under the deck, and looked at me with an expression that seemed to be saying, “You’re still here? Go away. I’m hungry.”

Back in the years BC (before children), my husband and I would travel for several weeks in the summer. I’d plant the vegetables, and then leave, practicing what I called the benign neglect method of gardening. The only time the plants got watered was when it rained; I never needed to weed. Every August, we’d return to a bounty of tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, zucchini.

Now that it’s AD (after diapers), we seldom are away for more than a day or two. I can keep an eye on the garden daily. I water it. I compost. I mulch.

The garden has never been as good as when I ignored it.

I’m sure there’s a lesson in here somewhere, probably about the pitfalls of micro-managing and the wisdom of allowing growing things – whether they be plants or people – to develop without undue and overly zealous outside interference. But I’m too hot to bother thinking about deeper meanings.

To me, though, the garden represents optimism. Every year, I’m optimistic that the critters will eat only the weeds and leave the flowers and vegetables alone. Every year, I’m optimistic that I’ll have so many vegetables that I’ll be able to donate the overflow to a food bank. Every year, I’m optimistic that the August weather will be 72 degrees, with low humidity and a slight breeze. Every year, I’m optimistic that there will be world-wide peace and prosperity.

Okay, so maybe the heat has made me delusional.

In the meantime, I think I’ll hum “We’re Having a Heat Wave,” while I phone my parents and see if they want a house guest.

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