Up, up and away

by Lorin Michel Friday, December 27, 2013 11:37 PM

In 1967 the pop-soul group the 5th Dimension released a single called Up, Up and Away. The lyrics talked of drifting up and away “in my beautiful, my beautiful balloon.” I like the Fifth Dimension though I have no idea why. I think it’s nostalgia. I remember when I was a kid and visiting the big brick house in McKeesport where my Aunt Eleanor and my Aunt Beryl lived with their husbands.  The radio was always on in their house. It was a big console radio that sat on the floor under the window that overlooked the Youghiogheny river below. To the right and left the steel mills, then still producing, would belch thick plumes of smoke into the air. And from the radio, I remember the lush tones of Marilyn McCoo singing about marrying Bill (I would find out later that she was, in fact, married to Billy Davis, Jr) and about not getting to sleep at all the night before.

This morning, we took Justin to the airport and on the way back, to the east, three hot air balloons hung suspended in the sky. The sun had come up not much earlier and was blazing across the desert from the east, golden red and cold. The air was still.  The balloons lazed high above the earth, high enough so we couldn’t make out the people, the size of the basket or even graphics on the balloon itself. They were off in the distance; we were on the freeway. And they were majestic.

I wondered what it might be like to hover above the desert in the morning when the sun is just beginning to warm the ground, to alight on the cactus, to make the sand dance and send any creatures scurrying. I love the desert. Love its peace and majesty, its magic and spirit; its mystery. Even its danger. In the summer, under unrelenting temperatures it can destroy every living thing caught in its thunderous heat, with no shade or water for miles. Only cactus and reptiles seem to survive and even thrive. When winter descends, those once scorching temperatures plummet past freezing. People and animals can succumb to exposure if not careful. The desert can kill you easily and in a hundred different ways. I respect its power even as I marvel at its beauty.

Hot air balloons floating above this danger seems a complete dichotomy. No one thinks of danger when they think of hot air balloons. They’re too peaceful to be dangerous; too eerily beautiful. That’s a misunderstanding. Anything that floats above the earth at heights reaching thousands of feet is vulnerable. There is propane gas that ignites to heat the air inside the balloon, keeping it aloft. The wind can come up suddenly. My mother was a hot air balloonist for years and knew of several accidents, a number of which were catastrophic. As with anything wondrous and mysterious, there can be an undercurrent of the unknown. It’s that unknown that keeps many people away even as it attracts so many others.

The song Up, Up and Away was written by Jimmy Webb. It celebrated a genre called sunshine pop, cheerful and upbeat with warm squishy music and vocal harmonies dripping from the vinyl on which they were recorded. It also celebrated hot air ballooning and went on to win Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards the year it was released.

I thought of the song today as I watched the balloons hang in the air, as we flew by and left them behind too quickly. As we did, I knew that Justin, too, was up, up and away, on his way back to New York to start his post-college career. Like the balloons he was here and then, he was gone. But we’ll see him again soon. And perhaps we’ll see the balloons, too. Perhaps when they next make an appearance, it will signal Justin’s impending arrival. As they descend slowly, drifting lazily to the ground, Justin too will descend and then we’ll all celebrate with champagne and orange juice.

At least that’s how my mom’s crew celebrated the end of a successful Up, Up and Away ride.   

It is humid

by Lorin Michel Friday, July 5, 2013 8:58 PM

I forget sometimes about humidity.  When you live in the desert or at least on the outskirts of it,  you get very used to dry air. It gets hot to be sure. Over 100 regularly in the summer months and don't believe it when someone says "yeah, but it's a dry heat." Heat is heat and over 100 it doesn't matter. The hottest place on earth is Death Valley with a recorded high of 134. It's in the middle of the desert. Things don't grow there. It is dry and blistering.

Now I'm on the east coast, in McKeesport, in my late Aunt Beryl's house, high above the Allegheny river. The sun is dripping from the sky, through clouds. It is sweltering, everything is damp, even when it should be dry. It is humid.

It's an interesting phenomenon, humidity. It sucks the life and moisture right out of you and deposits it into your hair. I have wavy hair that I can keep somewhat in line in California, but here, it's gone a bit haywire. It curls in unmanageable directions, flips out and then tries to pretend like there's nothing wrong. I had forgotten; I have remembered quickly. 

The air hangs; you can almost see it. Far off clouds gather steam and congregate, first thick and white, then tinged with anger. I watched them from the front stoop of Aunt Beryl's house today as I gazed down the steep, yellowed brick road. At the bottom of the street, only a couple hundred feet at the most, and over the trees, flows the black and brown of the Allegheny. A power boat pulled out from the trees and zoomed across the river, under the gathering humidity.

I knew it would rain again. Rain has a feel to it as it comes in. The air gets heavier; it smells thick and damp. Any breeze dies entirely before resurrecting itself to turn tree  leaves upside down and inside out. There is almost a whisper. The temperature rises ever so slightly.  Then it begins, sometimes in earnest, sometimes timid. The temperature drops and heat rises from the pavement like steam. My hair is curling just thinking about it.

It is humid. My hair may be curlier but my skin is less dry so that's good. In the house, the temp was probably 15 to 20 degrees hotter especially upstairs. There is no air conditioning; instead there are open windows and many fans. I spent time up in the attic, the highest and the hottest room in the house. I went through cupboards and closets and boxes, pulling out old photographs, birth certificates from an immediate family now, nearly a century later, gone.

I found dresses that I remembered my Aunt Eleanor wearing when I was a child. Pink checked light cotton, with a button down front. In those days, they were called housedresses. I don't know what they are called now, if anything. 

I found a portrait of my mother's grandfather in uniform, from World War I. I found one piece swim suits. I found dust and dirt and heat.

After awhile I had to go downstairs. It was simply too hot; too humid.

But today, from the front stoop looking out over the river to the gathering clouds to the stifling attic, I learned to love the humidity, even if just a little. Because once the clouds rained and the air cooled, it was a good day. It was actually lovely.

In which it is hot and I celebrate the first heat wave of the season

by Lorin Michel Sunday, June 30, 2013 1:12 AM

I don’t believe that A. A. Milne, one of my favorite writers because of his devotion to a bear named Pooh, a small swine named Piglet, a morose donkey named Eeyore, a wise Owl, an irritating Rabbit, a bouncing Tigger and a boy named Christopher Robin, ever wrote about excessive temperatures. All of his wonderful characters lived in the Hundred Acre Wood, where they got into mischief, and supported each other, happily. Mr. Milne always started his chapters with the trope In Which. I always loved that and evidently I’m not alone. I see this phrase used a lot around the blogosphere as people describe something that is about to happen, thus moving the conversation forward.

In which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets Into a Tight Place. In Which Piglet Meets a Heffalump. In which Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One. In Which Piglet is Entirely Surrounded by Water.

I have to say, that after the last couple of days out here in the west, I’m envious of that little insecure pig in his striped shirt. To be surrounded by water when one is surrounded by crippling heat might be a good thing.

Which is why we are moving to the desert.

It was 102º today in the OP. Bobbi said it was 109º in the valley where they live. A friend of mine who lives in Scottsdale said it was 116º in the shade. The southwest is bathed in a heat wave and it has been sizzling for days. Can’t walk outside barefoot kind of sizzling. Feel your hair color evaporate kind of sizzling. In other words, warm.

Las Vegas was a balmy 117º while Phoenix hit 119º in the middle of the day, breaking a record that has stood since 1944. Much hotter and Sky Harbor will have to ground the planes. Something about not being able to get enough lift when it’s hot like this. I always thought it was because the planes sunk into the tarmac, emphasis on the word ‘tar.’

The appropriately named Death Valley was on track to hit 128º today. Death Valley, a barren but stunning piece of land far to the east of us, has the distinction of being the hottest place on earth, having once clocked a high temperature of 134º about a century ago.

It was hot and tomorrow is supposed to be even hotter. We like the heat but this kind of heat is rather oppressive. We also like to be outside and you can’t really do anything outside. The sun burns your skin the minute you leave the shade. I already mentioned about the hair color problem. It seems almost impossible to get enough water.

It was into this furnace that we ventured several times today, with a little boy in fur, as people came by to take a look at the house, which is currently for sale. We pulled up some shade where the temp dropped to a near-cool 99º maybe. We took water and a bowl for Cooper. Our real estate ladies were so worried about him that on their third trip to the house this afternoon they brought him a travel water bottle, a bottle that hooks into its own trough for easy dispensing, storing and sitting outside in the shade for 20 minutes or so when the temperatures are in the triple digits.

We like the heat. It’s why we’re moving to the desert. But liking the heat and understanding that it can be dangerous go hand-in-hand especially for dogs. I don’t worry so much about cats because they instinctively know how to find the safest, coolest place to be. Dogs just want to be with their people. But their pads can burn and get blistered if they’re on asphalt. Whenever I see someone walking their dog when it’s hot like this, I think they’re idiots. In Arizona, it is literally considered animal abuse, one of the few laws in Arizona I agree with.

Cooper and his dad (Kevin), in the shade

As the day progressed, the temperature remained constant. I thought about Piglet, surrounded by water. I thought about the introduction of new characters, In Which Kanga and Baby Roo Come to the Forest and Piglet has a Bath. More water. New characters in our lives are always good. We have new characters in the guise of our real estate ladies, Debbie and Hillary, sisters who love dogs and love our Cooper.

Tonight, after we’d gone to the store and the temp had dropped even further, down to the low 90s on its way to the high 80s and eventually into the 70s we finally took Cooper for a shortened walk. The sun was setting, bathing the neighborhood in shades of pink and peach and pomegranate. The birds were out, kids had ventured onto the street to skateboard, or play bad mitten, air conditioners clicked off and the world became more normal. It was an every day life in the OP.

It was hot today. Sizzling, oppressive, evaporative, feverish, devilish, blazing, blistering, broiling, scalding, sweltering. Tomorrow promises to be worse.

And that’s OK. We have each other, we have water, we have AC. When it’s hot, we’re ready to live it out loud anyway. But just in case, here, have some water. 

The good, the bad, and the Armageddon of 106 degrees of separation

by Lorin Michel Monday, August 6, 2012 7:58 PM

It's very hot here today. If you look hard, you can see the OP beginning to melt. We've had a fairly modest summer with most days hovering around the mid-80s and the nights dropping into the 60s. Pleasant, comfortable and easy on the electricity bills. While much of the country has baked in record-breaking temperatures and no rain has fallen, causing severe drought conditions to be declared in more than half of the counties in the US, we've coasted.

Until today.

Today the thermometer was forecasted to reach 106º and while many who don't live here like to say "yeah, but it's a dry heat," the fact is, any time the mercury glows red over 100, it's hot.


Death Valley, California

Being desert rats, we like the heat. We even like to feel it seeping through the open windows, an invisible and sometimes suffocating fog that rises through the house leaving the downstairs somewhat cool but sending the upstairs into triple digits. My office is upstairs. As is the guest room that was once Justin's room. When he lived here and summer would arrive, he would suffer. Even if we put the air conditioning on (we have central air) it was never enough to cool off his room or my office because the cold air intake is downstairs in the hallway. The cool air would blow out of the one vent in his room and immediately get sucked back downstairs. I could go downstairs to the cool, could sleep in the cool. Not so young Master Justin. We ended up buying an in-window air conditioner that kept his room quite livable.

This kind of heat is bad for people and animals alike. Without proper hydration, both can suffer and even die. When I see a dog left in a car, I want to scream. I have been known to stand close to a car containing a dog. If the person owning said car and dog doesn't appear quickly, I am ready to break windows. I haven't had to yet, but I remain committed.

Heat like this is bad for water conservation because people take more showers, and run their sprinklers to try to keep their grass from dying. It's bad for the electricity grid as more and more people turn down the AC, overloading the system. It's bad for the environment because of AC in cars, and because the heat tends to hold the smog close to the earth. I know I can see it when I drive into the valley and a salty brown haze greets me. It's bad for exercising and bad for sleeping. It’s bad for anyone with respiration issues. Skin feels sticky, hair either hangs or frizzes, makeup runs. People aren't especially attractive when it's hot.


The uninhabitable Lut Desert in Iran. Highest recorded temperature ever at 159º

This heat is like Armageddon heat, or as Matthew Broderick's character said in Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical play cum movie Biloxi Blues, "it's hot. Africa hot." A quick look at some of the average temperatures on the original continent reveals this to be the case but only in certain countries. The Sudan averages 127º, Mali 130º and Tunisia averages 131º. These are all in the upper part of Africa, where the Sahara covers ten percent of the continent. The hottest temperature ever recorded for a place people actually live was 136º in Libya (September 1922). Most African countries tend to be more in the 80s and 90s range. Death Valley, which actually isn't far from here, is regularly over 120º in the summer, and boasts the second highest recorded temperature of 134º (July of 1913).

106, then, is like pocket lint in the searing heat lexicon. However, if we employ the game of six degrees of separation, it was 106 here today, it will be 109 tomorrow in Iraq which is near the Sahara, and Egypt will be 100º which is next to Libya, both in the Sahara, which will be 106º. In this way, we actually are Africa hot.

Is there anything good about this kind of heat? Bobbi would say absolutely not, no way, no how; huh uh. She's not a fan of summer and while I am, I do concede that this heat tries even the patience of a desert rat like me. Still, I get to work in shorts, I get to go barefoot most of the time and when the sun drops and the breeze kicks up, flowing through the house, pushing the heat out the back door, well, that's a good feeling, and good for sleeping. No electricity involved, no harm to the environment, no distress to humans or animals; Armageddon averted once again.

Armageddon is the biblical term for the end of the world, when the earth will be consumed in some sort of fiery retribution for something that pissed off dog. He was probably left in a hot car. It'll do that to a guy.

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