Island Life


I can’t remember for certain, but I think the first time I was made aware of warm, outdoor temperatures was at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. I t wasn’t because it was hot- I had grown up just forty miles north of New York City, and it had been hot during the summers my whole life. But the thing that brought an awareness of what heat in the summer really meant, was a visit to one of the Fair pavilions, and a set of stairs that led down into a basement “exhibit” and dramatically cooler temperatures. Again, I don’t recall how we were informed, but there was either a written or verbal notification down there that stated that the reason it was so cool was not because of a pumped-up air conditioning system, but rather, it was due to the fact that most of the humidity had been removed from the air. It was not long after that that we got a dehumidifier for our basement, which was already the coolest place in the house. It was my duty, since my room was down there, to empty the gallon or so sized catchment bucket that hung on the back of the dehumidifier just below a large copper pipe coil where humidity magically condensed and dripped into said bucket which hung just below. It seems as though during the height of the summer I was dumping the bucket out on a nearly daily basis, as we generally had a summer humidity range there that was somewhere around eighty to ninety-five percent.

Back in the mid-sixties, summer heat was just something you dealt with in New York. Very few people had air conditioning, either in their homes or in their cars. And there was no grand concern about “hydration”. While soft drinks were mostly for special occasions- picnics and birthday parties- we did have iced tea with dinner most every night. During the day, we kids generally got dropped off at our pool association, which was both an open and tree covered space across town. Generally the only things we got left with were a towel and bathing suit and some money for lunch at the snack bar. We certainly did not have water bottles or canteens, and I don’t even recall a big deal over sunscreen, which was more likely to be a suntan lotion that enhanced one’s solar absorption rather than protected you from it. We spent a part of each day in swim team practice readying for league competition, but mostly we just hung out without much concern for sun burn or dehydration and heatstroke. We were indestructible kids, after all.

And then came my time at boarding school, where each trimester had its mandatory sports regimen that we were required to participate in. I was there primarily for swimming during winter term, and the swim coach recommended that swimmers participate in the cross country running program. Before that, most of my running had been in pick-up games of touch football in the fall, and peewee baseball in the spring and early summer. But to go out and just run for a mile or more was just an alien concept to me. On the first day out, we were presented with the perimeter of the lower level athletic fields as our first course to tackle, which was an L-shaped loop around a big, flat, grass expanse lined by trees. Before we headed out there, we had to purchase our running flats, but were issued running shorts and sleeveless top, along with a full length sweat shirt and sweat pants that we could turn in for clean replacements at the gym cage as needed. Once we had gotten that standard issue, we were told we had to put everything on for this first run, even though it was a mid-September, sunny afternoon in western Massachusetts where those kinds of days tended to be in the mid-eighties in both temperature and humidity. We ran. We were encouraged to not stop until we had completed our distance for the day, the length of which I cannot remember. At the end of the loop we were herded back to the locker room, where we were warned in no uncertain terms that any water we took into our mouths from the water fountain was not to be swallowed, but rather swished around to rinse away any salts that had been left in piles around one’s molars as residue from the evaporation of excessive sweat, and then spit back into the fountain. Under no circumstances were we to ingest any of it. I went back to my dorm room and collapsed on my bed and I’m pretty sure I missed mandatory dinner that night, and because I was a kid, I was back out running again the next day- eventually it got easier.

That was the other side of now, where everyone is expected to be constantly drinking something, regardless of the ambient temperature. You should at least drink eight glasses of water each day, along with a couple of lattes, one or five sports drinks, depending on your level of inactivity, a couple of beers or glasses of wine to wind you down in the evening and the obligatory glass of warm milk before bedtime- chilled if it is above eighty degrees outside. You can do all that if you’d like- I don’t. I would like to say though that a few years after my first cross country training run, I found myself at the sports training table at the University of North Carolina at the end of August. I was there to swim again- and go to school- and so I was able to eat at the athletes’ cafeteria amongst the runners and the wrestlers and the footballers. As it was, the basketball players were more special than the rest of us and lived at a set of private towers off campus- it was UNC basketball after all. Anyway, there was a bit of a hush and a pall that had engulfed and enshrouded the training table on my first few visits there. It was especially quiet amongst the footballers. It was not long before I learned that one of their own had fallen during practice and had not gotten up. It turned out that eventually, after a number of days in ice baths and other things, he would never get up again. This was the reason for the gloom at the training table. It could have been avoided- the gloom and the death- if he had been allowed a drink of water or three during football practice. At that time though, the coaches believed that if you stopped for a drink of water it meant that maybe you just were not tough enough to make the grade. Turns out those coaches were dead wrong- I believe things changed on the practice field after that.

As it was, my first year on the swim team did not go as well as I would have hoped, and so I stayed in town to swim with my coach and his summer league team. I had also not done so well in a calculus class that spring term, and so I decided to try and make that up with a bit of summer schooling. I found myself getting up fairly early to bicycle to the pool and the first workout of the day. Since these were the days just before swim goggles were popularized, I found myself in class after workout with brain fog induced by six to eight thousand meters of swimming, whilst at the same time trying to focus my chlorine-soaked eyes on the blackboard. After class I maybe ate something, then reported back to the pool for an afternoon of lifeguarding. Then we had an evening workout of another six to eight thousand yards, after which I found something to eat somewhere and made it home to fall down and get up to do it again. I was not really eating all that well, and I certainly was not hydrating up to any standards even close to the now. Part way through the summer, because of a conflict with the outside pool schedule, we had to swim in the indoor pool. The water temperature in there was 93 degrees F. it was a bit too hot to workout in, so instead we played water polo. I played goalie. After just a half an hour of treading water in front of the goal and fending off shots, I found on the scale later that I had lost three pounds. I did no rehydrate accordingly.

One of the parents of the age-groupers on the team was a professor in some sort of number-crunching manner of teaching, and along the way he decided it would be interesting to calculate how much ice it would take to get the outdoor pool, which was itself getting close to ninety degrees, back down to a reasonable training temperature. I do not remember what the figure was he came up with- it didn’t really matter anyway because it wasn’t going to happen. What did happen though was that with the daily 15K of training, along with the lifeguarding and the biking and the not eating or drinking properly, all of it finally came to the point where I just couldn’t do things anymore because I was too exhausted and depressed to function. I didn’t really understand it, and there was nobody to tell me what was wrong, and so I just stopped and went home, which at the time was 650 miles to the north. I don’t think I told my supervisor or my coach- I just packed up and left because I was getting worse, not better, and it wasn’t supposed to be happening that way.

Even though I do have a much better idea these days about proper nutrition and fluid intake and levels of exertion, I have found myself in situations where everything comes crashing down no matter what I do. One of the things that brings this on is heat, and so it was when the giant scorching blob of death from above settled in here recently, I took it way more seriously than I used to. Some of our last trips to the Burning Man thing out in the Nevada desert found me suddenly incapacitated and immobile because of the heat. I eventually found that not drinking coffee and not drinking alcohol and chugging glasses of water with close to a teaspoon of salt and a packet or two of Emergen-C had an amazing regenerative effect. I do not like being so vulnerable to the weather- I find myself repeating more often than I would like these days that three word mantra that seems to come to us all at some point- Getting Old Sucks. I will continue to juggle and tweak my chemistry because I have to- perhaps someday I’ll get it right.