One of the things that has arguably been made too easy with the advent of cell phones in everyone’s pocket is checking the temperature. Given the strange seasons we have had in the past few years, I have developed the habit of checking my phone app first thing every morning, usually hoping for warm days. Usually, I find that the temperature is exactly what the same app said it would be when I checked it before going to bed last night.
There are several things we look toward as indicators of the seasons—increasing or decreasing sunlight; conditions like rain, snow, or ice; phenological occurrences such as plants greening, flowers blooming, animal activity; and of course, temperature. Of these, temperature affects us the most. Our lives in the modern world change very little in response to seasonal change. The modern food industry delivers strawberries to us in January and squash in April, so we can cook whatever we want in any season. Rain, snow, or ice all must be pretty severe to alter our daily activities. The few things we do reliably with the change of seasons are to change our costumes and turn on heat or cooling in our abodes–both responses to temperature.
It’s funny when we finally have the first moderately cool day after a long, searing summer, and you see women out in their sweaters and scarves, even though the afternoon temperature climbs to 80°. Just can’t wait to break out the warm woolies. It’s the same when the winter yields to a few warm days, and people throng the streets in shorts and T-shirts. You see kids the next day and the next walking to school in brief outfits, even though the temperature has returned to freezing. Our clothes are a statement, not just of fashion, but of our belief in what season it has become.
We have a conflicted relationship with the temperature. We obsess about what the temperature is: thus, the repeated checking of phone apps, and hanging onto every word from a local TV weather personality. Thirty-two degrees is a breaking point for us—is it above or below freezing? But really, anything from 33° to 40° does not feel that much different than 32°. Beer is considered nice and cold at 42°. We complain about the heat until it’s cold enough to complain about the cold. Almost everyone’s favorite season is either spring or autumn, the seasons with the most clement temperatures, and we long for their coming. And then we stay inside anyway.
When I was a boy our parents, and all the parents in our neighborhood, would sit outside on pleasant evenings, talking and watching us kids rollick through the block. Walking down most suburban streets on spring evenings these days is like visiting a ghost town. We’re not out in it, we’re inside: a new season of our show is starting, there’s a new special on Netflix. I recently read the observation from a British author that Americans are odd in that they will heat their homes in winter to temperatures they’d never tolerate in summer, and cool their homes in summer to temperatures they’d never tolerate in winter. I think he’s right—I have been in some icy living rooms in midsummer, and in homes that felt like proof boxes in winter. I just don’t know if Americans are unique in this; most people in the developed world have good heating and cooling systems. Are we alone in being so wasteful, so unaware?
If this is a problem, I’d say the solution is the same as I always prescribe: get out in it. Don’t even check the temperature, just throw wide the windows and see how it feels. Stick your head out the door. Plan different things according to the seasons. Cook different things in spring than you would in autumn. The temperature is an important measure of weather, but it’s also an artificial one. What one person thinks is too hot to be out gardening or picnicking may be your ideal afternoon. What one person thinks is a bitter cold day may feel to you like the best time for a brisk walk. We are not all the same, even if scientific measures like the Fahrenheit scale try to establish some uniformity.
You don’t have to play that game.