Phoenix, My Skin Is Stretching

Why An Arizona Summer Is Like a Minnesota Winter

A hot day can shut down scholastic and extracurricular activities back east. Here in Phoenix, you learn fast that a heat advisory is only issued when temperatures are expected to exceed 105 for two consecutive days. If it’s 112 one day and 104 the next, no advisory.

Do a search and you’ll find articles written about how high school runners here have it tough. Does the heat stop them from running? Nope.

It’s only a dry heat.

Phoenix is an island. It burns.

Here we maneuver from one air-conditioned building to another. Imagine the sun’s rays like raindrops. Pretend you don’t want to mess your hair up. Some people walk around protecting their skulls with umbrellas. They look funny, but hey, they aren’t getting skin cancer.

Those of us without umbrellas trace the shade with our footsteps until we find an open door. Students of mine arrive with sweatshirts to class, believe it or not. The freezing, inside air is a refuge and a potential trigger for a common cold. That might be something my grandma believes, anyway. In truth, the respiratory system is shocked by the sudden change in temperature. Dry temperature.

Spend an hour or two on an airplane or in an air-conditioned car heading toward Phoenix. The precise moment you arrive and step into the day (or night) air, you can feel your skin being stretched, similarly to a deer hide being prepped for leather upholstery.

I like to compare summer in Phoenix to a Midwest winter: people trapped indoors reading, and building up just enough stir-crazy to go outside and build a snowman.

One California winter, my family and I were trapped in our cabin during a snowstorm up in Big Bear Lake for three hours. I’m not bragging, but it was pretty awesome. This pales in comparison, however, to what people in, say, Minnesota have to go through. Imagine “black dust,” or dirty snow blown from 50 mile-per-hour winds. Or don’t.

Here it doesn’t matter if you have shorts and a tank top on, or whether you walk out the door in jeans and a sweater; the temperature shrink-wraps your skin. You experience it best coming from somewhere like California where an 85-degree day can feel like death. Eighty-five degrees in Phoenix is a bocce in the park, with a mojito (in your other hand) kind of day. We pray for days like that. I do.

So why does it feel hotter in areas of higher humidity?

A Bill Nye moment: When there is already a high concentration of water in the air, your sweat has no place to go. In fact, the water in the air condenses on your skin. While you may feel stickier or sweatier in high humidity regions, you’re actually sweating less. But because the sweat doesn’t evaporate, you appear to sweat more. This also means that the process of sweating doesn’t cool you down much, and you feel warmer.

I prefer the dry heat to the sticky feeling I get when I’m visiting California in, say, an El Niño season. This preference extends whenever I’m forced to wait in a long line. I hate waiting. In lines especially.

It’s confusing to look out my window on a sunny day and not have even a drop of desire to “play outside.” The heat burns a hole in my motivation; a certain lethargy breeds in these extreme conditions. This is karma for the times I used to hold a magnifying glass over the ants strolling my mother’s patio.

So here’s a good question: Why the hell does Arizona subject its citizens to wait in line for primary elections in the dead of August? Do they really not want us to vote?

There are a lot of unexplained things in Arizona. Like, why doesn’t every building have a courtyard with a shaded cover and fountain in the center? Plants do well in these conditions and the overall refreshing experience is a natural answer to the dry conditions. Somebody make me city planner for a day.

Whatever the case, the weather doesn’t keep me from casting my vote, but it might not be the easiest experience for some of Arizona’s more vulnerable citizens. Or for someone without an umbrella.

Fernando Pérez is a writer from Long Beach, California. He currently lives in Tempe, AZ where he teaches writing at both Arizona State University and Mesa Community College. He holds an MFA in Poetry from ASU.

*Photo courtesy of mikeyexists.


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