In south Louisiana, we often use the expression, "It's not the heat; it's the humidity." People who have never lived in a sub-tropical or tropical climate cannot fully grasp the paralyzing effect of humidity, but I can assure everyone—it is impressive.
For decades, the wretched 90-degree dampness appeared in May and didn't leave us until October. For the last four or five years, though, we have been fortunate enough to experience a much later onset of what we call summer. Beginning in June—rain or shine—the atmosphere is drenched with oppressive moisture that you can smell, feel and almost touch.
The good news is that people who live in high-humidity areas have naturally moist skin. The bad news is that they have considerably more bad hair days than their sisters and brothers in other parts of the country. Skin and hair may be composed of the same tissue, but what makes one look healthy makes the other look lifeless. On a really humid day, there isn't a conditioner available that will invigorate hair that has been rendered flat and sticky by the south Louisiana summer.
If you live where I do, one way to entertain yourself during the summer is to read an L.L.Bean catalog, or one similar to it. Summer sweaters, three-quarter sleeve pullovers and summer-weight jeans would render most of us non-functional, and possibly put us in the emergency room. The concept of a summer blazer is even more amusing. It's hard to imagine how certain businessmen and women can stand putting on suits and ties in July and August. Granted, offices are air-conditioned, and so are cars, but a trip from the car to the office can produce enough perspiration to ruin the finest broadcloth.
The only way to survive is to wear the lightest cotton and linen. Seersucker is good, and so is any kind of mesh fabric. Pantyhose—a curse in January—are deadly, and are to be avoided whenever possible. Those women who believe they must wear them in the dead of summer suffer in ways I cannot begin to imagine.
It is not unusual for a Louisianan to take two cool baths a day during the summer, or to apply slices of cold cucumber to her face. We still have to work in the garden and do outdoor chores, so we stock our refrigerators with large bowls of ice water spiked with Florida Water. When we can't stand another moment of the heat, a bandana soaked in the mixture, then wrung out, is applied to the face. The restorative effect can be almost miraculous, and allows us to go outside and sweat profusely all over again.
Dining habits change. We cope in the summer by eating a lot of salads, including pasta, bean and rice salads. Pasta dishes prepared at room temperature also are helpful, as are cold soups, fruit dishes and sandwiches. In Louisiana, the scrumptious Creole tomato is the saving grace of summer, and we eat it in huge slabs on sandwich bread, in salads, and right off the vine. Melons and sweet little Alabama peaches accompany many meals.
Too much humidity, just like too much arid air, can impede sleep, and air conditioning is just as important for drawing out moisture as it is for cooling. When the barometric pressure drops, many of us lie awake, no matter how comfortable the room is. Then it is time to go outside to look at the moon and listen to the cicadas and frogs. On a humid night, the noise is overwhelming, with the ditch-dwelling bullfrogs providing the bass. The thick air is filled with the smell of rotting organisms—some humus-like and sweet, others pungent and foul.
If it is deep into summer—July or August—the night-blooming cereus produces giant white flowers that hang like ghostly pendulums from curved stems. They smell wonderful, and by morning, they are spent, as if the hot, soupy air sucked the life right out of them.
The daytime garden doesn't always fare as well. Black spot and other lesser-known fungal diseases annihilate roses. The same bushes that looked so spectacular in April often look hideous in June. In May, if the humidity kicks in early but the nights are still cool, powdery mildew covers the leaves of roses and other plants and shrubs.
Strange glowing white flowers, incredibly tasty tomatoes, and frog choruses sounding like the elements of a sub-tropical paradise are tantalizing. But they come at a great cost. Just as seasonal affective disorder causes melancholy in some places with harsh winters, intense heat accompanied by extreme humidity can produce a torpor that is hard to bear.
Some people actually like humidity, though I don't understand this attraction. I have lived in Louisiana most of my life, and I still dread the summers, despite the fact that I have learned how to cope with them. Residents who move here from drier climates can have a hard time of it, though, like the couple who moved next door to my friend in a neighboring town. About a week after settling in, the man knocked on my friend's door and announced: "We have mushrooms growing in our bathroom. Is this normal?"
There was, of course, only one correct answer: "Welcome to Louisiana."
BIO: Diane E. Dees, a psychotherapist and writer in Covington, Louisiana, is a regular contributor to Moondance. Her short stories, creative nonfiction, poetry and political commentary have appeared in many publications. Diane and her husband, Orvin Tobiason, are the webmasters of princesscafe.com, the world's only virtual rock and roll restaurant. You can read her blog at dedspace.blogspot.com.
Contact Diane at: firstname.lastname@example.org.