For the last couple of weeks, temperatures have been regularly in the 90s and 100s. Even worse, and unusual for this part of the world, it has not been cooling off appreciably at night. A series of hurricanes has been swirling about in the Pacific and while Arizona is being pummeled by flash floods we get only giant thunderheads piling up over the mountains, taunting us with the possibility of rain that never materializes.
So we sit in front of the fan. And we swelter.
Swelter is a great Old English and Germanic word, meaning to sweat, languish or faint because of heat. It comes from the Germanic verb swelt, meaning to die or perish, though also with a connotation of languishing, starving, or burning away. This word pops up in Old High German as swelzan (meaning to burn away), and also in the Old Norse sulte or svelta (to starve). In English, swelt also gave rise to sulter (a spell of hot weather), a word that has since wilted into obscurity, but not before giving us “sultry.”
Nothing is what. Fellas like John Jewel go swanning about in their velvet doublets asserting that it is “Better … to Marrie, then to swelter inwardely with filthy affections.” (An Apologie in Defence of the Church of England (1571)).
But if Johnny boy knew ANYTHING about sweltering, he’d know that “filthy affections” are among the first things to fall by the wayside when the mercury rises and sharing a room with another living human is unbearable. As Cole Porter observed, far more pithily, “It’s Too Darn Hot.”
Then I saw Caleb Trenchfield’s 1662 description of “Physitians who, willing to appeare richly clad, swelter in Plush in hot summer”—and I was suddenly catapulted back to the sartorial trenches of middle school.
The nice shiny clothes never quite fit right—a little too tight here and too gappy there—but what was worse was the creeping self-doubt, niggling like an itchy label.
I didn’t have a full length mirror, so the last day of vacation would find me standing perched on the ledge of the bathtub, trying to get a good view of my first-day outfit in the medicine cabinet over the toilet.
Cute shirt! I would think. Sleek! Fashionable!
Maybe it would look better tucked in? Like this?
Or like that?
No, too dorky. Untucked then.
[try to stand on tiptoe. slip into tub]
Monica tucks in her shirts…
[tuck in. stagger. retuck.]
That looks good, right?
Oh God that looks stupid stupid stupid stupid.
Wait. Maybe like this.
That’s probably OK.
Do I look like I’m trying too hard?
The next day I would head out the door into the blazing heat. In among the new books and the Pee-Chee folders, I’d discover that the lace was scratchy and the khakis stuck to my legs and that smudges and stains really show up on Qiana. By the end of the first week everything was completely wilted and I’d be back to my usual uniform of jeans and nerdy T-shirts.
I was never very good at fashion.
I’m still not, but one of the many advantages of middle age over middle school is that I don’t care. I have spent much of the last week alternating between two cotton shift dresses I got at the thrift store. These are cool and comfortable and flattering and they do not require me to balance on the edge of the tub. I still don’t have a full-length mirror, but I do have plenty of filthy affections.
When it cools off maybe I will get me a pair of legwarmers.