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"The rewards for being sane may not be very many, but knowing what's funny is one of them"

Kingsley Amis

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Falling Towards Winter

When the words “Autumnal Equinox” appear on the calendar they send a little chill through the heart as well as the body. Labor Day is one thing, but this is official. Summer is over. It should be more dramatic. But nothing much changes.

When we were in the south of France a few autumns ago, everything changed. All the visitors and tourists went home. The roads north were jammed with millions of sun-worshippers, returning reluctantly to their damp and chilly everyday lives. There was an almost audible collective sigh of relief from the people who actually live in the south year round. Many restaurants and shops cut down on their hours, or closed entirely. It was a true autumn – not just a date on the calendar but an economic, spiritual and social transformation. People would live differently from now until the first signs of spring.

It must be the same in the Hamptons or any summer resort that has this chameleon character – in season or out of season. But, for most of us out here in the suburbs of the temperate zone, autumn brings no such profound changes. A few sunbirds flutter off in the direction of Florida, unable or unwilling to face meteorological reality. The rest of us continue our lives almost exactly as before. The temperature drops in the evening, the thermostat clicks, and the heat comes on. A warm afternoon, the thermostat clicks again and here comes the air conditioning, keeping our bodies at an even 74 degrees. The fruits and vegetables in the supermarket scarcely change. We have eliminated the natural seasons, leaving only the commercial seasons. I suppose we are trying to convince ourselves, with some success, that we are not actually living on a ball of dirt spinning and wobbling in an infinite freezing void, but in a kind of huge indoor shopping mall open 24/7. Only a few farmers, vineyard owners and mariners study the sky and work according to the seasons, and they are obviously off-message.

We do embrace some trivial lifestyle changes in autumn. We read more, watch more TV, exercise less, and eat much, much more as we prepare ourselves for the great food ordeals of the coming months. I assume this is why it’s called “Fall” in America – the fall from dietary grace begins here, with the first batches of Halloween candy. Homeowners can contemplate future problems with the yard and the gutters, as billions of leaves fall, the storm windows that never fit, and the heating furnace, which has been neglected all this time. We start fussing over winter clothes mothballed in the basement. Our outdoor cats become resentful and demanding. I’ve been promising them central heating in the garage for years.

Poets, like cats, have strong feelings about autumn. Keats famously called it called it “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” which sounds lovely. Shakespeare wrote of “Teeming autumn, big with rich increase” – which seems to augur well for the stock market. But perhaps William Cullen Bryant was more on the mark when he wrote of autumnal days as “The Melancholy Days, the saddest of the year.”

It’s been such a lovely summer – politics apart – that I would like to just miss the melancholy days this year, including Halloween the elections, Thanksgiving and the dreaded Holidays. And it occurs to me that in southern hemisphere, autumn is spring. Perhaps we could go one better than the sunbirds by changing hemispheres twice a year – catching spring and summer in Australia, for example, and returning just in time to catch spring and summer here. That would be a good life. My frequent flyer miles could be my salvation, except that they add up to a one-way trip to Atlanta. It’s a start.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Ends of the Earth

Christopher Columbus was fortunate to live in what we now call “The Age of Discovery,” when there was still something available to be discovered. Five hundred years later, what we see on the world map is what we get, now and forever. Space, the final frontier, has turned out to be full of unrewarding dark matter. Modern explorers are left with nothing to explore except a few muddy ocean depths and gloomy caves. It’s a sobering thought.

Even when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety two he didn’t expect to find any unknown lands. His map showed the great ocean to the west of Europe with a few islands scattered in the middle of it, and China the East Indies on the other side. This was where he expected to land. Instead he bumped into San Salvador.

History is strange. We celebrate Columbus as the Great Navigator, the discoverer of the New World, even though he never set foot on mainland America, not even on New Jersey, which is hard to miss. And, of course, America had been discovered thousands of years before by aboriginal casino operators crossing over from Asia, and again five hundred years before Columbus by a bunch of blond Vikings in funny hats who decided it was a boring place and went home.

All these explorers suffered an extreme form of the common human disease, the restless desire to know what’s over the next horizon. Why else did our ancestors migrate all the way from sunny Africa to freezing North Dakota? We need to keep moving and some people, like Columbus, didn’t know when to stop.

What was the result? Columbus himself got nothing good out of his desperate voyages. He was appointed Governor General of the newly discovered Caribbean islands. But he made an awful mess of it, never got the package tour business off the ground, and was returned to Spain in disgrace. He was pardoned, but in the end he died in poverty and obscurity. If I hadn’t failed Latin at school I would be tempted to remark sic transit Gloria mundi, but I won’t.

One thing we can say for sure about history is that it rewards the winners. Who remembers the thousands who tried to make that voyage and failed? History also rewards the leaders, not the troops. The ordinary seamen who suffered and often died in the service of Christopher’s ambition might just as well never existed. Those men were so scared of sailing into the unknown that Columbus kept two separate logs, one of which charted the ship’s real progress and course and the other, intended to reassure the hands, that seemed to show that they were on a much shorter and safer voyage. In other words they weren’t heroes, they were dupes.

Half a millennium later Columbus is remembered as a hero rather than as a con artist, and the results of his restless voyages have been momentous. Consider what the world would have been like if Lief Ericcson and Columbus and the rest had just stayed at home, if everybody had just stayed at home to cultivate their gardens. History would be utterly changed. That blank space in the western ocean would have remained blank, and Native Americans would never have been forced to go into the casino business. They would be living an Arcadian life across this beautiful continent, hunting and eating buffalo burgers. All the hyphenated-Americans would be living in their old countries with their old cultures, and speaking their own languages. The American revolution of 1776 would never have happened, and so the French Revolution of 1789 would almost certainly never have happened either. France could now be ruled by King Louis the twenty-fifth, which might be an improvement. Without America Germany would easily have won the First World War, and we’d all be wearing pointed helmets and saluting the Kaiser. And it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without Hollywood movies, McDonalds, Spam, jazz, Bill Gates, Donald Trump, and all the other great American inventions.

Above all, if it hadn’t been for Columbus and his obsession, there would be no Columbus Day Sales. The first recorded Columbus Day sale happened in 1478 when Columbus, then twenty-seven years of age, was hired to make a voyage to the island of Madeira to buy sixty thousand pounds of sugar at a special price. But, by the time he arrived, the sale was over and the price had gone up.

Great men may change history, but some things never change.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Yesterday’s Pool

I was riding the Long Island Railroad into New York, reflecting that the great advantage of this train is that it allows you to enjoy the scenery. The landscape doesn’t rush by in a blur, as it does when you travel on the French TGV or the Japanese Bullet Train. The Long Island Railroad train jogs sedately along at the speed of a horse and carriage, so passengers can appreciate the passing show.

It is a social and perhaps even a sociological experience because the track passes by hundreds of backyards, offering a peep show into other people’s lives. What struck me on this particular journey was how many houses had pools: big and small, above ground and in ground, square, round and curved pools, all looking rather sad in the chilly September rain. Even if a few warm days still lie ahead, those pools are yesterday’s news. Halloween witches have already appeared in the supermarket, and the Christmas catalogs began arriving in August. The first snowstorm can’t be far away. But what do you do with a pool in winter? You can’t hide it away in the garage like a barbecue, or put it out for garbage collection like a broken lawn chair.

In fact most pools lie unused most of the time, even in the best summer. Here in the northeast a pool is a very American, very optimistic investment. In all the years I’ve traveled up and down that line I can’t remember ever seeing anyone in any of those pools. We can hear when our neighbors’ pools are in action. Apart from the splashing noises, there are shouts and screams unique to pool use, unlike any other sounds uttered by suburbanites in everyday life. But we hear these joyful sounds on only three or four hot weekends every season. It would make more economic sense for a street or a subdivision to share one big pool – but that would be communism.

Some hardy souls, who hate to waste a good investment, keep their outdoor pools running into October, and even into November. We can sometimes hear their shrieks of joy, which could almost be mistaken for shrieks of agony, when they plunge into the frigid water.

But all good things must come to an end, and a pool cannot just be ignored when winter comes. It must be expensively “closed.” This is a huge operation, comparable to mothballing in Boeing 747. Closing must be done at exactly the right moment: too early and you get algae bloom in spring, too late and you get a pool full of dead leaves. All the water must be drained out, of course, typically four or five thousand gallons, and you have to wonder what happens to all that chemical-rich water. Then elaborate rituals of purification must be carried out, with chlorine and algizide, ending with the installation of a cover strong enough to prevent visitors from the Midwest from falling right through. One advertisement in a local paper shows a baby elephant standing on the pool cover, which may be exaggeration. But it makes the point.

Closing must be a dispiriting as well as an expensive process for pool owners, especially after such a cool and rainy summer. But sometimes I think that backyard swimming pools are more symbolic than practical. Even the closed pool, its tarpaulin weighed down with rainwater and leaves, is a harbinger of hope, like the Michaelmas Feast in September, or bulbs planted in October, or spring fashions in January, or the darkness before the dawn. Summer will come again. The pool guarantees it.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Are We Having “Fon” Yet?

Every year, as Labor Day fades into the past, the cry goes up around the land: “Summer’s nearly over. Are we having fun yet?”

This is a good question, but hard to answer because nobody is exactly sure how or where “fun” is to be had. It seems to be a relatively modern concept. The characters in Jane Austen or Dickens, let alone Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, never had “fun,” or worried about not having it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “fun” derives from an ancient dialect word “fon,” meaning a trick, a cheat or a hoax. That is to say, “fon” was something you did to other people, while “fun” is something we are supposed to do to ourselves.

This is a useful distinction, and I think it should be revived. For example, I have here a brochure for one of those amusement parks where, for a fee of $25, you can be whirled around, plunged into water, and generally made thoroughly ill and uncomfortable. “The Fun Starts Here,” it says on the front, in large letters. But what they mean is: “The Fon Starts Here,” because the joke is entirely and literally at our expense.

Old-style amusement parks of the P.T.Barnum type made this blatantly obvious. Paying customers were assaulted with distorting mirrors, under-floor fans, and all kinds of shocks and surprises that made them look and feel foolish. Humiliation and embarrassment were the essence of fon. Now we are all so puffed up with self-esteem and so well-armed with lawyers, that amusement park operators have to be much more subtle. Their artificial surprises are elaborately explained in advance, complete with health warnings for people who may have bad backs, or heart trouble. Nobody is shocked or humiliated in modern amusement parks, which is why they are so supremely boring. Not only are they not any fun, they are not even any fon.

Most adults realize this, more or less clearly. They look for fun in more individual, personal activities. But there has been a kind of fun inflation, like grade inflation in the schools. It’s no longer acceptable to have fun simply by sitting around with a bunch of friends, eating and drinking like peasants at a Breughel wedding. A bike ride or a fishing trip to the local pond is no longer enough to provide fun for the whole family.

Fun requires equipment. It may be a high-powered computer, or a jet ski, or an Olympic size pool. Generally speaking, the more the equipment costs, the more fun is promised and expected from it. And since nobody knows exactly what fun is, or how it feels, the search for it is very much like the search for happiness, namely long, expensive, and doomed to disappointment.

It is interesting to contemplate the more bizarre manifestations of the search for fun. These include the so-called extreme sports, in which fun is equated with taking almost suicidal risks, in order to experience the “emotional highs” that so seldom accompany ordinary suburban life. Extreme sports include alpine paragliding, skydiving, mountain biking in real mountains, white water kayaking, and under-water hunting.

If these experiences sound about as much fun as a root canal to you, you’re right. Like the amusement parks they are examples of fon, not fun. The participants are the victims of a whole repertoire of unkind jokes. The brochure said that this would be fun and – without some firm definition of fun to cling to – how can they tell that it is not?

At the end of the Summer fun season, students must return to their schools and colleges. They should be happy, because education is supposed to be fun too. But, from the students’ point of view, I fear that it may seem like the ultimate example of fon.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Give me a Break

It’s a paradox that Labor Day is devoted to fun and idleness because, after all, it’s
the one-day in the year when we are supposed to celebrate work. Work has a very
special status in America. Most foreigners consider work to be a curse and a nuisance.
But here it is generally considered to be a good and even a noble thing. If
the statistics are to be believed, which perhaps they should not be, Americans
work harder than any other nation on earth.

It’s a source of astonishment to Europeans that Americans take so little vacation
time. The average worker gets a tiny 8.1 days’ vacation after a year in the job,
and 19.2 days after three years, if they’re lucky. One out of ten companies gives
no paid vacation at all, and in some states it’s as low as one out of five.

How did American vacations get so short? The Germans enjoy thirty days of
paid leisure time each year, and the wicked French have five weeks. The Italians
have six weeks. What’s more, Europeans actually take their vacations. They leave
work, and leave town, and don’t come back until the last possible minute. Here,
many people we know don’t even take the short vacations they are entitled to.
The only person in this country who takes full-length European-style vacations is
the President, who vanishes off to some golf course for weeks at a time. Presumably we
continue to pay his salary during these relaxing breaks.

An earlier President, William Howard Taft, proposed in 1910 that all American
workers should be entitled to a two to three month vacation. In 1939 the
Department of Labor also recommended mandatory paid vacations for everybody.
It never happened, and in fact vacations have been getting shorter and
shorter since 1945.

One explanation of American work habits is that we love our work so much
that we can’t bear to be away from it. The statistics on job satisfaction do not bear
this out. Another traditional answer, proposed by the sociologist Max Weber in
1904, is that America inherited a “Protestant work ethic.” Hard work is pleasing
to God, and idleness is next to sin—a belief that Benjamin Franklin incarnated
back in the eighteenth century. But it’s hard to credit that this historic Protestant
neurosis still motivates American workers of all faiths today.

Our hard work should pay off in superior productivity. But those lazy Europeans
are actually more productive. This makes no sense at all and I can think of
only two plausible reasons.

One theory is that Americans are only pretending to work long hours. You
may have noticed how few people seem to be actually at work at any given
moment. You can spend all day calling people who should be in their offices and
getting nothing but voice mail. During working hours the highways and malls of
Long Island are packed with people who seem to be of working age and who are
not obviously driving taxis or trucks. I know this because I am often out there
myself, driving around as pointlessly as the rest of them.

Some of these unoccupied folks are retired, of course, some may be working
night shifts, and still others may have won the lottery so they don’t need to work
at all: but so many? Can these daytime drivers and shoppers be just goofing off,
wasting time and gasoline and contributing nothing to the national economy?

The other explanation of the productivity paradox is the one I like better.
Americans are just tired. We need a longer break each summer. William Howard
Taft, a progressive Republican who liked to take it easy, had it right the first time.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Feel My Pain

Everybody loves a mountain, especially if they can drive up to the summit instead of climbing. The most popular and highest mountain in the southwest of France is called Mount Aigoual, standing a little over five thousand feet, which has two excellent roads leading to the top. Our little Fiat just made it, and we were rewarded with a spectacular panorama. What took away some of the pleasure was the pain and suffering of the many cyclists who, for mysterious reasons known only to themselves, had decided to ride all the way up the mountain, a distance of twenty-two miles, not a single yard of them flat. There were dozens of cyclists, perhaps hundreds, all bathed in sweat with agonized faces and leg muscles that stood out like steel cables at breaking point. Nobody, as far as I know, was forcing them to do this. It was their own choice.

I can see that coasting down the mountain would be fun. When I was a kid my friends and I used to ride to a nearby hill and puff our way up to the top, just so we could come zooming down again. But our hill was only about a quarter of a mile long, probably no more than fifty feet high at the summit. That was all the pain and suffering we needed at that or any other age.

Human nature is unfathomable, although Sigmund Freud among many others tried to fathom it. Psychologists have long recognized the existence of masochism, the ability to get pleasure from pain. It seems to explain a lot about human nature, although we might be happier if it explained less. The world is full of examples. In addition to the cyclists we saw people resolutely walking the twenty-two miles up that mountain, carrying heavy backpacks. The trek takes eight hours. The diagnosis seems obvious, the treatment less so.

Painful activities are extraordinarily popular – marathon running, all kinds of athletics, eating healthy diets, camping, and so on. I read about a forty-six-mile off-road triathlon in Sweden that must be a kind of benchmark for miserable experiences. “It’s about taking as much pain as possible,” said one of the organizers. Indeed, enthusiasts like to say: “Feel the pain” with a kind of pride. But plenty of people with arthritis feel the pain – there’s no virtue in it.

Pain is not just a pleasure for young people. Before climbing the mountain in our Fiat we had visited a famous spa nearby. This offered cures for just about everything, including old age, with a combination of sulfur baths and massage, with the additional option of being covered in honey as a special treat. The mixed stink of sulfur and honey in the place was quite literally nauseating, so we stayed only long enough to see a row of already-processed victims, people at the far end of life but still keen to suffer, sitting hollow-eyed on plastic chairs, wrapped in white robes, and obviously glad that the torture was over.

This may be the answer of course. We enjoy suffering when it stops, when we get to the top of the mountain or climb out of the sulfur bath. It’s the anticipation of relief that gives us courage, and the anticipated sense of superiority. Not for me though, I don’t like pain. I go to considerable lengths to avoid it. But am I missing out on the pleasure of pain? Should I be torturing myself, just for the fun of it? It’s the kind of question that gives me a headache, but an aspirin should take care of that.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Sum of Human Happiness

The pursuit of happiness is one of our inalienable rights, along with life and liberty. It’s not just a right but a duty, although only half of all Americans report being content with their lives. That puts the United States in eleventh place on the international happiness index, way below the Scandinavian countries, but much higher than the Russians, Spanish and Portuguese, who don’t seem very cheerful at all. It’s easy to understand the Russians, but I don’t know why the Iberians are so gloomy. It must be all that sad guitar music. These differences are consistent over time. Happy nations tend to stay happy through good decades and bad. Depressed nations stay depressed, no matter how many cable channels or Happy Meals they get. Money has almost nothing to do with it.

The Founding Fathers were wise to specify the pursuit of happiness, rather than happiness itself. Sigmund Freud held the opinion that actual happiness was a form of neurosis in adult human beings, and that the best we should hope for was a delicate balance between mild cheerfulness and mild depression.

This delicate balance is sometimes hard to find. There is a long tradition that tells us to make the most of our problems and learn from them. I was forced to reconsider this piece of conventional wisdom after a major hurricane left us freezing and without power for ten days. We learned to live without modern technology and to re-learn some technologies of the past, which is where we seem to be headed anyway. But this was the only lesson I could derive from the hurricane experience, and it wasn’t a particularly happy one. It’s all very well to quote: “Sweet are the uses of adversity,” but Shakespeare wasn’t familiar with power cuts.

Our personal balance of happiness was running low when the power came on after ten days, at which point we rediscovered the old truism that the secret of happiness is to take pleasure in small things, like the possibility of a hot bath. In other words, we were delighted to have luxuries that we had already, but never thought about – small scraps of pleasure that briefly loomed very large, and quickly became ordinary and taken for granted.

If Freud was right, these little flashes of happiness are the best we can hope for. We should always be ready to seize them when they appear, and then be ready to let them go when their moment has passed. Certainly, we should pursue happiness, but carefully, in case we catch up with it, like an old beagle I used to have. She loved to chase rabbits, but she was alarmed by the prospect of catching one. So, she would always contrive to run just a little slower than the rabbit. The dog was happy to have a great chase. The rabbit was happy to escape. I was happy not to have a dead rabbit on my hands. For a moment, everyone was happy.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Your Vacation Therapist

Three thousand years ago, the Delphic Oracle revealed the secret of successful vacation planning: know thyself. Never mind about the rest of the family, they must make their own mistakes. But your personality is the key to the success or failure of your vacation. There’s no need to consult an expensive psychiatrist. Just take this simple test.

Imagine that, in the middle of a busy working day, you suddenly have an unexpected hour of free time. Would you:

(a) Take a brisk, healthy walk, regardless of the weather, perhaps taking in a museum exhibit along the way?

(b) Grab the phone, get on the Web, and try to make the time as profitable as possible?

(c) Collapse on to the nearest couch, and take a nap?

If you answered (a), your psychology is “Puritan.” If you answered (b), you qualify as “Paranoid.” If, as I hope, you answered (c), then you fall into the category that, in psychological jargon, is called “Decadent.” Now, you can plan your perfect summer vacation based on your personality. A Decadent person should not even think about a hiking holiday in Iceland, any more than a Puritan should contemplate a Mediterranean cruise.

The Puritan Vacation is a throwback to the harsh early days of American life, when the best time out you could hope for was a short nap in church. The hallmark of the Puritan vacation is the pursuit of virtue through suffering. Most people spend money on vacations, but Puritans save it. They camp miles outside town in mosquito-infested swamps (very reasonable site fees), and dine off dried packaged foods bought at a quantity discount before the holiday. They have nothing but contempt for tourists who stay in comfortable motels, eat at good restaurants and drink fine wines, as if vacations were about pleasure.

Puritan vacationers also have very firm rules about holiday activities. They must be cheap or free, physically uncomfortable, and as boring as possible. The Puritan holiday activity must also have an element of serious self-improvement, so that the trip can be seen to justify its miniscule cost. So, Puritan vacations tend to be heavy on culture: painting adobe churches in the noonday sun, toiling through endless museums, hiking down remote gorges to view Indian rock carvings, making long detours to worship at historic sites (Buffalo Bill slept here), and so on. The ultimate Puritan vacation would a camping and bicycling tour around North Dakota in March.

The payoff of the Puritan Vacation is not relaxation or amusement, but virtuous achievement. “It was a lovely four weeks. We saw every museum in New England, and it only cost a hundred and fifty dollars.”

The second vacation style, which I call the Paranoid, is very different, being entirely focused on maximizing pleasure. The characteristic concern of the Paranoid vacationer is the terrible fear that a moment of leisure value might be wasted. The Paranoid holiday vehicle can easily be spotted on any highway, sagging under the weight of recreational equipment. Skis, surf boards, bikes, canoes and inflatable rafts are piled high on the roof, and all-terrain vehicles are towed behind.

In spirit, the Paranoid vacationer – who is usually male – has never left the office. His laptop and cellphone are never switched off. He has projects to complete, resources to mobilize, and personnel to manage. The personnel consists of his unfortunate family, whose assigned task it is to use all that recreational equipment, even if it kills them. Any spare moments are scheduled for swimming, climbing local mountains, and visiting National Parks.

The United States is too small for the seriously Paranoid traveler. He is the ideal candidate for those whirlwind six-countries-in-six-days tours promoted by travel agents, or for any vacation packages that combine intense activities with an exhausting schedule (“Hang glide in Hawaii, walk the length of the Great Wall of China, safari in Africa and cross-country ski in Antarctica, all in five action-packed days…”)

The essence of the Paranoid Vacation is not virtue, but productivity. One can imagine the exhausted family on the homeward journey, tallying up all the miles driven, paddled, rafted, cycled, skied, climbed, swum, scuba-dived, surfed and hiked, as well as games played, theme parks visited, fairground rides taken, and jogging assignments completed, to say nothing of photographs snapped, burgers eaten, sodas drunk, states and nations ticked off the list. “Well,” says dad, entering the details into the family vacation database as they head home, “We made a 6.4% improvement on last year. That’s what I call a vacation!”

Those of us who are fortunate enough to enjoy the type of personality that (implying no value judgement) I call “Decadent,” regard both Puritan and Paranoid vacations with horror. Fortunately, there is a whole industry devoted to our needs.

The Decadent vacation requires no strenuous activities or compulsory sights. It is located outside of time and space, at a resort, or a fine old hotel, or a rented cottage in the south of France. Resorts are the fastest-growing part of the US leisure industry. Chains of them reach across the country and across the world, advertising their product with slogans like “The Pursuit of Happiness” and “Relaxation is our Business.”

The true purpose of the Decadent vacation is to have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and nothing to remind you of your worries in other places. The Decadent vacation paradise sets sharp boundaries between itself and the outside world, and tries to be all the things that the outside world is not – totally calm, utterly safe, perfectly beautiful, and ineffably convenient. Everything is laid on, from decorously slow-moving sports, to soothing and respectable entertainments. Entirely satisfactory meals arrive at regular hours, and the sun almost never goes behind a cloud. It’s like being dead, except that you continue to eat.

The great American utopians of the last century believed that perfect happiness would come from collective work. They were Puritans in disguise. The twenty-first century has straightened this out, like so many other historical mistakes, and revealed to us that perfect happiness comes from perfect idleness. The Decadent vacation, unlike any other, is the one you wish could go on forever.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Price of Cool

A few years ago, we moved into a house with central air conditioning, a luxury we never had before. I was nervous about the system at first, and first tested it for about ten minutes in June, when we had a few hot days. I closed all the windows, prompting loud complaints from the cats, and gingerly pressed the switch. The house began to vibrate and hum like a factory, and freezing air blasted out of the vents. The electric meter started whizzing around like something in the Indianapolis 500. Clearly the system was working, so I switched it off.

Now we have this difficult to make every summer. With air conditioning on the house will feel like an isolation tank, or a corporate office. With the system off, as it is now, it feels like a Turkish bath.

The modern vogue for air conditioning began in the 1920s and, as you might guess, it began in Texas, which seems to have replaced California as the world capital of unreality. Houston is reputed to be the most air-conditioned city in the world. In such places ordinary fresh air is regarded with about as much enthusiasm as poison gas. For several months of the year citizens live in an artificial bubble, very much like space colonists in old science fiction stories – aliens on their own planet. Once Texans declared that real men don’t have to sweat, the nation followed. By the 1960s, air conditioning was everywhere, even in places like Maine and Alaska, where the homeowner must stand alertly poised over the button, waiting for those few moments of warmth that come and go every August.

I like to go out and walk in the fresh air every day in summer, no matter how hot it gets. There are so many lovely places to walk on Long Island, and every one of them attracts a crowd of nature lovers, sitting in their cars with the windows closed and air conditioners running. It may be that, for whole generations brought up on family road trips and television nature specials, trees and oceans just don’t look right without a frame around them and glass in front, and an even air temperature of seventy-two degrees. They are happy in their cars, where the sounds, smells and sensations of nature in summer are blocked out. In the car, nobody can overhear your phone conversations or comment your taste in music, the family can’t get you, nobody can say “You can’t eat that sandwich on the Atkins diet,” nobody can challenge you for being lazy. In a way the air conditioned car parked in an attractive spot is the ultimate freedom capsule. It fulfills the second promise of the D of I, “Liberty” and possibly even the third, “The pursuit of happiness.” To out of three is not at all bad.

Cats, as always, can tell us something useful here. Like the proverbial canaries in the coalmine cats tell us when the environment is going wrong. In a house with open windows they are glued to the screens, catching the sounds and smells of nature. In an air-conditioned house they go to sleep. Reality for them, and perhaps for us, has been switched off.

The nasty little secret of air conditioning is that it’s not even comfortable. The body rebels against those shocking changes from hot to cold and back again, from bright sun and summer smells outside to icy filtered air inside, from short sleeves and sandals to sweaters and double wool socks.

Air conditioning puts us in an isolation tank, cut off from the sounds, smells and sensations of summer. There’s something slightly sinister about an air conditioned city or suburb – the blankly closed windows, the background roar of motors, the warm splashes of water from above, and sudden blasts of other people’s heat jumping out at you. It makes a person nostalgic for the natural air conditioning of a beach or a Parisian Cafe terrace in August.

Home air conditioning is adjustable, but in public buildings and workplaces the temperature is controlled by sadistic Eskimos in the basement, who sit in overcoats in front of an electric fire, pumping the last few degrees of warmth out of the building. Just to make sure that nobody gets a breath of fresh air, they seal up all the windows. Hypothermia, influenza and Legionnaires Disease is the least we can expect from a really powerful air conditioning system.

The human race got along very well without air conditioning for most of history. They lived and farmed and fished through the summers for thousands of years without air conditioning. The most tropical areas of world were explored and settled without air conditioning. Great empires were gained and lost without air conditioning. Capitalism, factories, railroads, and even democracy were built without air conditioning. Just about all the most important works of art and science and philosophy in the world were created by people who had no air conditioning. In other words, we have strong historical evidence that a bit of sweat never did anybody any harm.
I think we pay a rather high price for the trivial comfort of air conditioning, and I don’t mean just the electricity bills. Canceling the very climate is a huge leap into unreality. It’s a way of pretending that nature doesn’t exist, doesn’t matter, isn’t real.

Have you ever wondered where all that heat goes? All those trillions of therms that used to be absorbed into the sweating human body are now pumped out into the atmosphere. If we want an explanation of global warming, we should consider that Washington DC, the capital of hot air, is the most comprehensively air-conditioned city in the world.

Copyright: David Bouchier

A Step Up

Everything moves outdoors in summer, including music. We often stay in a French village where a lot of outdoor performances happen every summer. It’s a common sight to see temporary stages being put up in parks or open spaces, ready for the next show. The stages are simple structures, made from scaffolding covered with boards, and about three feet high. From Carnegie Hall to the village square, every performer needs a stage.

The young musicians who perform there are mostly amateurs or semi-professionals who subscribe to the belief that real music began in the nineteen sixties. They don’t have many instruments but they do have powerful amplifiers, and speakers so huge that they often dwarf the band members themselves. This tells us that the purpose of the stage is not to allow the band can be heard. They could be heard two miles away even if they were playing in a deep hole in the ground. It can’t be that the audience wants to see them because, to put it politely, and with rare exceptions, they are not much to look at. It must be because that little step up, three feet above the ground, makes them feel good.

Everyone loves to be on stage. Kids absolutely adore it. Like grownups they will clamber on to anything that gives them a bit of extra height, and height is what it’s all about, elevation, superiority. In any public event, there are several possible arrangements of seating, some of which put the audience in the superior position and others that elevate the performers. In the theaters of the ancient world, the seats rose high above the performers who looked up towards the audience like mice caught in the bird seed bin. Entertainers in those days were considered the lowest form of life. In Shakespeare’s Globe, as in most modern theaters, people in the cheap area (the “groundlings”) are on a level with the stage, while the wealthier members of the audience look down on the players. You can’t have a much clearer metaphor than that. Then, finally and most seductively, there is the stage or podium that puts the performer clearly above the whole audience. This is the authoritarian listen-to-me-because-I-know-best arrangement, favored by old-fashioned teachers, radical preachers, and all politicians.

How true it is that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. I have strutted my brief hour upon a few stages, and plenty of lecture platforms, and I must confess that I am not immune to the pleasure of elevation. It’s not hard to understand. No psychoanalysis is necessary. As children, we were all controlled for years by persons taller than ourselves, so we spend the rest of our lives trying to compensate. Competition over height starts early with young boys. Tall men have a distinct advantage on the basketball court of life, and we build ludicrously high and ugly buildings presumably because they seem more powerful and important. Any lofty mountain presents a challenge. Every year several hundred otherwise sane people try to climb Mount Everest, for no reason except to turn around and come down again. Moses went up the mountain to get The Word, not down into the basement. Money experts speak of the commanding heights of the economy. In war, everyone wants to seize the commanding heights, so they can rain destruction on their enemies. But even the highest military position can be dominated by a fighter plane, or a drone. The ultimate masculine height dream is to put weapons out in space. Nobody could beat that, either militarily or psychologically.

Compared to these dangerous fantasies a temporary wooden stage is nothing. I can’t begrudge the musicians their harmless three feet of elevation, or their few minutes of superiority. If I could play the electric guitar I’d probably be up there with them.