Inspissation: A Meditation on Maryland Summer

 Vol. 10, No. 27

July 4-10, 2002

Current Issue

Inspissation: A Meditation on Maryland Summer

Dock of the Bay
Letters to the Editor
Burton on the Bay
Chesapeake Outdoors
Not Just for Kids
Eight Days a Week
What's Playing Where
Curtain Call
Music Notes
Sky Watch
Bay Classifieds
Behind Bay Weekly
Advertising Info
Distribution spots
Contact us
Story by April Falcon Doss
Illustration by Lali

On a sunny afternoon in late spring, I discover a 1957 Dictionary of Microbiology.

I flip to a page. Here is what I find:

The concentration of a liquid by evaporation.

An unseasonably early haze is settling across the lawn. The heat seems to concentrate something essential in us, boiling us down to what we are, sometimes to what we wish we weren’t. As I gaze out the library window, I ponder an alternative meaning for inspissation: the distillation of my own tissues and being in heat.

I continue flipping pages.

Acquired characteristic

A particular characteristic acquired during life as a result of the interaction of the external and internal environment. See Lamarckism. The acquired characteristics are heritable.

I grew up in this meteorologically inconstant place, experiencing random weather patterns as part of my daily routine.

At 22, I moved to Northern California, where we had two seasons: sun and fog. From there, I migrated to San Diego, where we had no weather, only climate. A gorgeous, perfect climate to be sure: mist blowing in off the ocean, breezes that cooled the evening, a sun that always shone and warmed the days. I found myself longing for a rainy day to curl up with a book, to move slowly, to escape the moral imperative to leap into outdoor adventure with each weekend day.

I wished for the kind of torrid, sultry night I knew back home, a night when my clothes clung to my skin with perspiration that couldn’t be cooled by hand-held fans or ice cubes on my neck; a night made for clothes so scanty as to be indecent in any other climate than the furnace, the crucible, the water-and-steam-filled kiln that shaped my growing-up years.

At last I returned home to Maryland to live in a county whose roads wind interminably around the creeks and rivers and Bay that shape its hundreds of miles of shoreline.

Characteristics acquired by habit, use or disuse may be passed on to future generations by inheritance.

Lamarck might be right. I had lost my stamina for Maryland’s atmospherics. Five years California, and I had become a weather wimp.

The mild winters left me shivering. The summers made me gasp. Boating on Chesapeake Bay, I guzzled cold drinks from 32-ounce sport bottles. I crouched in the shade of a cockpit bimini. After a few hours peering into the water’s glare, baking under the sun, I could feel my skull constrict and my neck grow tense. A headache coming on? Absurd. Yet, undeniably, it was there. Each time out I reached a sudden breaking point: if I did not immerse myself in water at once — jump into the river or creek or Bay, douse my hair, wrap a soaked bandana around my neck — my head would begin a dull pounding that dogged me until the next day.

As I flipped through this obscure microbiology textbook, it occurred to me that instead of acquired immunity, I seemed to suffer from acquired susceptibility. This, I suspect, is an evolutionarily poor move. I hope that Lamarck was wrong: I would hate to pass my frailty on to my children, who seem plenty rugged so far.

It’s now been more years since my return than the total time I spent out west. Can this trend, this failing, be reversed?

Relatively resistant to heat.

I grew up resilient, living without air conditioning through Baltimore summers that return to me now in a series of snapshots: Snowball stands and ice cream trucks. The sound of a soda can clattering hollow, empty, metallic onto the concrete sidewalk. Running through sprinklers and splashing in the water that gushed from open fire hydrants. Sitting damp and hot on the white marble stoop of a rowhouse in the city’s evening heat.

And those long summer nights, lying naked on my bed, on top of one cotton sheet with another one draped ever-so-lightly above me, the cool fabric wicking the heat away from my body as my perspiration breathed out through the material’s folds.

Each spring we hoisted up the wooden casing of my bedroom window, there we bolted in place the gold metal window fan that would ease the burden of summer’s air. All summer long, my white sheer curtains fluttered in the vortex created by the fan’s blades. As a child, I looked past those curtains into the night, quite certain I could fly if only I could remember, in some primal, mystical way, how. If Jesus walked on water, I had no doubt that floating on this thickened, concentrated air of Baltimore in August would be — like swimming in the Dead Sea — a cinch, even for mere mortals like me.

The ability of a microorganism to respond to a stimulus.

On a blistering July day, I complain about the oppressive heat and the absurdly high mercury reading outside. To goad me, my husband says, “You know, no one’s ever really defined temperature.”

I am torn between a prickly-heat-induced urge to retort, “That’s preposterous!” and wondering if his proposition is really true.

My husband is a mechanical engineer and an expert in the closely related fields of heat transfer and fluid dynamics. Whether due to his nature or his training, he cannot resist edifying me about these climatological experiences we face. He reminds me that air is a fluid, whose movement is governed by all of the same principles that constrain and inform the motion of water, oil or blood.

“Thermodynamics textbooks neatly evade defining temperature,” he tells me. “Instead of telling what temperature is, they define temperature in relative terms, or whether one material is hotter or colder than another. So, measuring temperature has to do with bringing the measurement material of the thermometer into thermal equilibrium with the material to be measured.”


“Heat flux,” he explains. “That’s what you’re feeling.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Really, it’s not that hot out,” he continues. “It’s just the differential you feel,” the relative change in temperature from one thing to another.

To which I irritably reply, “Objection: relevance.”

I find myself appallingly intolerant in extreme heat. I am considerably more open-minded when I am comfortably cool. These academic points of distinction interest me greatly when we discuss them over iced tea in an air-conditioned restaurant. Under the glaring sun of a becalmed Bay, they irritate me.

We step under some trees. “Oh,” I gasp with relief. “It’s so much cooler in the shade.”

“Not really,” my husband badgers. “The air temperature is actually the same in the shade or out. It’s just that here in the shade you’re shielded from the force and effect of solar radiation.”

These distinctions are absurd, at least as applied to my experience of being hot. I defy anyone to diminish my experience of heat.

Thermal Death Point
The amount of heat capable of destroying a given species of bacteria in a given time. Three factors are involved — namely, the time, material and temperature.

Thermal Death Point. Sounds kind of like Darth Vader, I think. Or the risk faced by my husband if he tells me once more that these fiery temperatures are merely relative.

My encyclopedia defines heat as energy that is transferred from one body to another because they are at different temperatures. Energy transferal? Then how to explain this lassitude I feel, this utter enervation? How to explain the way that beads of sweat quiver on my lip, my chest, my brow on those long summer days?

According to my source book, “The effect of this transfer of energy usually, but not always, is an increase in the temperature of the colder body and a decrease in the temperature of the hotter body.”

No kidding. How else to respond to the observation that 100-degree afternoons heighten my own thermal setting? How else to explain that such weather makes the blood boil, leading to the inevitable rise in emergency room admissions and homicides on these fevered, torrid nights?

The only way to absorb energy without getting hotter is to change form: by melting or boiling or by changing from a solid into a vapor through the process called sublimation.

Ahhh, sublimation. Perhaps, then, sublimation is what I feel, when at last this nearly-solid, dense atmospheric pressure around me begins to ease with the waning of the day, as the heat’s tight fist loosens and a breeze restores the fluid properties to air that had been solidly thick and stagnant all day.

Fat splitting.

People are known — even hereabouts where opportunities to sweat come plentiful and cheap — to pay considerable money for the opportunity to sit in a steam room, breathing sharp, wet heat while stinging beads of sweat burst through their pores and glisten in a lake on their skin. This homage to lypolysis, to the presumed fat-splitting properties of steam, is most common in upscale health clubs and spas. But here in Maryland, it comes free — on the streets of South Baltimore, in the flatlands of the Eastern Shore and in the desperate calm of the air that hangs dense and limp, clinging to masts and empty sails, up and down the Chesapeake Bay through August. Lipolysis through steam-induced sweat.

We should all be so thin.

The transformation of a gel to a liquid.

Humidity, technically speaking, is a measure of the moisture content of the atmosphere. The air surrounding us always contains some water vapor; how much it can hold depends on the temperature. At 40 degrees, Fahrenheit, 1,000 pounds of moist air can hold up to five pounds of water vapor. At 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the same 1,000 pounds of air can hold up to 40 pounds of water vapor.

“When the atmosphere is saturated with water, the level of discomfort is high, because the evaporation of perspiration, with its attendant cooling effect, is impossible,” my encyclopedia states dryly.

Indeed. Unless one has the good fortune to be riding on a fast-moving boat – a near impossibility under sail on these wet and heavy days. The only recourse is power: internal combustion, jet drive, diesel, two-stroke, four-stroke, inboard, outboard, or inboard/outboard — any kind of motor that will push a boat at speeds sufficient to perform the magic, to whisk the perspiration away from your skin and let you believe, for an instant, that the air has cooled.

Thus, when I learn that 58 degrees Celsius — 136 Fahrenheit — is the warmest recorded natural air temperature, at El Azizia, Libya, I am impressed, but only mildly. I, no doubt geocentrically, suspect the Libyans don’t enjoy our world-class humidity. I feel better when I discover, on good authority, that an air temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit with 60 percent humidity feels like 129 — or 54 degrees Celsius. That’s more like it.

Liquefaction, then, is the process by which the heat, the gel of summer’s heavy air, is made liquid by the transformatory, transitory power of a thunderstorm. Following this process, typically the liquefaction reverses itself. The air once again thickens, becoming gelatinous, a moisture-laden miasma through which we slowly move.

Germs of any form floating in the air, especially in marshy localities.

Summer skies in Chesapeake Country bear a distinctive look. On the rarest of days, the blue is autumnal, with the clarity and infinite depth of a laughing child’s eyes — wide open and vibrant, utterly devoid of falsehood or guile.

Far more often, especially in the summer, the clouds and haze form a solid, blank dome behind which the sun’s disc cannot be distinguished. The color of this deadpan dome is nearly gray, nearly white, yet tinged with yellow or orange or pink, like old, dirty snow smeared through with a puddle of pale sherbet. It is a color as opaque as the eyes of someone ashamed, or of someone harboring secrets – which is the same thing.

Dilution, Serial
The successive dilution of a specimen.

Let’s rephrase that.

Serial dilution
Repeated mid-Atlantic thunderstorms offering increased wetness but no relief from the viscosity or humidity of the surrounding atmosphere.

Sometimes, a blistering thunderstorm sweeps through the skies, dropping acres and pounds of water that swash across the land in a fast-moving, sideways stream without seeping into the ground before the mass of water slides, carrying muck and pollution and nutrients with it, into the once-crystalline Bay. The temperature may drop 20 degrees during such a storm.

Yet the air following these storms can be as dense and humid, as wet and pregnant, as before the rain. The particles creating an opaque haze should now have been washed out of the sky, yet the heavens appear as gauze-enmeshed as before – on account of the suspended water vapor left hanging, awaiting a new cloudburst for release, as we also await a new cloudburst for relief.

Steam rises in a dense fog from the blacktop. The breeze hangs limp and heavy once more. Nothing to do but wait for the next rain, for the next storm, for the series of storms that at last will flush the heaviness away.

De novo
Afresh, anew. Especially, I would add, as used in reference to the effects of a thunderstorm, or series of thunderstorms (as in serial dilution), that at last succeed in washing the smog and dreck from the sky.

Typically, these de novo conditions arise following an elater.

A filament that assists in the dispersal of spores — which I redefine as a thunderstorm that heralds a cold weather front, scouring humidity from the air and leaving a swirling, giddy energy in its wake.

These thunderstorms cast a menacing darkness that turns the sky black and green and purple in the direction, usually northwest, whence the front comes. The air pushed before the front bringing the elater swirls and whispers and roars, lashing the branches of trees and masts and dropping foliage from limbs before the first raindrops hit. These bellowing currents of air crackle wildly with an electric energy that makes my dog quiver and follow at my heels; that agitates children; that makes grownups ache to spin outside under the gathering clouds like human lightning rods tempting the oncoming storm — or to draw the curtains, run to the cellar and hide.

The first rain of an elater typically splatters in massively wet drops, knocking hard on pavement, cars and people for a few instants before — crash, boom! — the heavens open and the world is bathed from a high-pressure shower that intensifies, magnifies and forces the water out of the clouds and down in a driving, cleansing rain.

At last — at last — the rain abates, leaving blessedly cool air in its wake. This is de novo – anew, afresh. Trees glisten, the sky sparkles. The humidity is washed away. It is a rare and blessed event during Chesapeake summers.

Destroyed by heat; more specifically, substances decomposed by temperatures below the boiling point.

I live in air-conditioning now. The windows of our house are rarely open, even in the most glorious weather. The cool nights of spring and fall inevitably come when the screens are still off the windows from the previous season. Plus, we have small children now; for safety’s sake we keep the upstairs windows closed and locked. Truth be told, though, even before the children were born, I’d lost the habit of feeling cold winter air crackle around my head from an open window or of lying motionless under the weight of another summer night.

The point at which the rays of light, after reflection and refraction, meet. The point where the image is formed clearly.

July 4, 1999: It is 104 degrees and the humidity must be 80 percent, casting a haze through the atmosphere and across all I can see. The sky remains orange even at night, the color suspended, dispersed, refracted, shot through with the tinge of the setting sun and the glare of streetlights in the hot air, of the headlights and porch lights whose illumination cannot escape to the stars but lays trapped here in this dome of wet heat.

On this July 4, my husband and I have gone to Annapolis with family. We’ve docked two boats in transient slips on Spa Creek so that we can lounge through the fireworks display and then sleep aboard.

The heat is astounding. I am wearing denim shorts, a white halter top, shoes. Our daughter, 13 months old, wears a romper of the thinnest woven cotton. Woven fabrics wick away the heat more effectively than do knit ones. My skin is covered with a sheen of perspiration, the kind that advertisers create from spritzer bottles on the bony shoulders, insubstantial arms and pouty lips of models to cast an aura of sensuous heat. Here, though, in Annapolis — and Glen Burnie and Bel Air, and all through our local region this day, this past week of blistering days — the sheen is authentic. It comes from within and tastes of salt and dirt and thickened air.

We slip our daughter — born June 21 and named Summer — into her stroller and head off the pier into the center of town to the historic district of Annapolis’ City Dock to watch the July 4 parade.

I am amazed at the throngs of people, like us, out in this heat under this weight. It becomes strangely normal, this drenched sensation, this river of moisture on my skin, under my breasts, between my thighs, collecting at my ankles in the dampening socks I wear inside my running shoes. It serves as a buffer, this liquid. It lubricates the intersection between my skin and the surrounding air.

I look around me at the sweaty bodies of the crowd full of children, young women with strollers, 30-ish men, elderly couples, the overweight and the skinny — every one of us stripped down to as little clothing as we can legally wear. The heat; the sheen; the wetness of our clothes and our brows and our hair; the heart-shaped pools of dampness we leave behind when we have been sitting too long; the puffiness of hands whose rings pinch fingers grossly engorged by the heat. All of these things level and unite us, join us in a common elemental recognition that there is no rank, no privilege, no education, no fortune, no beauty, no age nor youth that confer immunity from the heat. For all of us out here have been washed in the mingling of perspiration, our bodies brushing against each other in the crowds, an anointing with sweat.

Come 10:04pm it’s still 102 degrees. Does it ever let up?

This morning I had been disappointed by the day’s weather forecast. After so many days of staggering heat, I had hoped that on this holiday we would get some relief. Now, as I watch the streams of revelers pass by, I reconsider. Perhaps the weather today offered us a pure example of democracy in action.

We are all one, and equal, in the calefaction.

The heat.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly