To telescope, we start with a hunking 300 words and then slice it in half through each successive section. We stop when the numbers stop dividing evenly.
The temperature in Athens raised with every day we were there. Ninety, ninety-five, ninety-seven. Passersby, drivers, and merchants were all effectively near-sighted; all anyone could see in the streets in front of them was a shimmering layer of scorching air. The heat was palpable. It left the realm of the abstract and became a solid entity, floating in the atmosphere, as visible and real as a cloud.
Throngs of tourists climbed the one hundred and fifty steps of the Acropolis, wiping their brows and sweating straight through brand-new “I HEART ATHENS” t-shirts. Everyone had about a square foot of space which they could call their own. And yet that space was swiftly adulterated, occupied by the radiating body heat of those around you. On the sidewalks, warnings of heatstroke and dehydration plastered telephone poles, written in both English and Greek. The heat wasn’t just inconvenient, but borderline dangerous. It was heat that made you lose your footing. But it also dragged you along, urging you to continue with one foot in front of the other. The goal wasn’t to succumb to it, but to escape it.
Merchants on the sides of the streets made a profit by selling plastic bottles of cold ice water. We bought these and pressed them to our foreheads, letting the icy condensation drip down our noses and cheeks. Some tourists carried little battery-powered fans which spritzed water on their faces in increments. People did whatever they could to keep cool.
Around three or so in the afternoon, the heat reached its precipice, and in the blink of an eye, Athens became a ghost city. Tourists retreated to their hotel rooms. This afternoon migration to air-conditioned shelters was a universal necessity. Most stayed inside until sunset, when the cobble stone streets of the old city filled up once again, just as quickly as they had emptied.
“An anomaly of huge proportions,” my dad called the three days in Athens. I’d never experienced heat like that. None of us had. And yet it wasn’t an anomaly. The temperature increase wasn’t some unprecedented week-long fluke. It wasn’t unexpected. All summer, Europe had been experiencing a heatwave of epic proportions. In June of 2019, 567 people died from the heat. In July, 868 deaths were reported. July 2019 is tied for the hottest month ever recorded, as far as global average temperature goes.
The heat which Europe experienced this summer wasn’t just a series of hot summer days. It wasn’t pastoral. It wasn’t at all reminiscent of the summer heat which my parents experienced in the 1970’s. This was heat which consumed you. It warmed you to your core. Ultimately, to equate these heat waves to simple anomalies would be a vast misrepresentation of the extreme changes in the global climate which are happening worldwide.
It would be great if I could say that my family’s three days in Athens were coincidentally warm, an anomaly. And yet that would be wishful thinking. With every passing summer, temperatures are rising. We can’t hope that the summer of 2020 will be vastly different, somehow cooler. This summer set a precedent which is bound to repeat, and at some point, battery powered fans and icy water might not do the job anymore.
So what is there to do? In the midst of global calls for climate reform, our individual actions can feel futile. But cognizance of this problem, this heat, is the first step. Catalyzing change is undoubtedly the second.
When I am 7 years old, the heavy hotness of a mid-August sun trails spirals down my spine until I’m enveloped in its suffocating embrace. I needlessly rake the arid earth where I sit with the tips of my fingers. Maybe that will somehow bury the pepper seeds that I’ve planted deep enough into the ground that they’ll forget they need water to grow.
“Well that’s not doing much, is it?” admonishes a crackly voice from the other side of the fence in my parents’ backyard
I startle and search up, up, up until I see the silver head that has turned the unforgiving sun into a halo.
I speak through the gap between my teeth. “Who’re you.” A demand.
“I’m your friendly neighborhood gardener, little petal. And I can tell you that you won’t grow anything like that.”
Ornery, and a little insulted, I feel like challenging this woman, whom I just now remember is called Ada, as my mother had explained when she moved next door two weeks before. I remember hushed conversations where mother shrieked Ada lived “by herself!” as if it were a scandal. I don’t know why it would be; that sounds great. She probably never had to wait for permission to eat ice cream.
“Well, if you don’t like it, then show me your peppers!” I think I’ve got her there, when she leaves for a minute. But then she’s back, mostly green vegetable in hand.
“Hah! it’s brown!”
“They’re called beauty spots, petal. See, I’ve got ‘em too.” She dangles her arm over the fence, and I immediately grasp it, turning her arm to see better. Sunspots, I remember my mother had once said, but Ada called them beautiful.
When I am 9 years old, I long for the summers that never seem to end, the sizzling days that keep me in my denim pants and canvas gloves, weeding and raking and tending, well into October.
Ada and I have since developed a routine after that fateful day two years ago, where I meet her at the bus stop, and she watches me do my homework until mother returns from work. If I’m done early enough, we go out to the garden together.
It’s one of those sticky fall afternoons when Ada decides our pumpkins are ready to harvest. I’m ready to carve out my jack-o’-lantern and make pies and tarts and all kinds of other goodies, until I see her shears and the jagged teeth of a steely chainsaw.
I watch from afar as Ada cuts my pumpkin’s throat, and cry when she snips its hair, leaving it naked and alone.
Her soft stare is a magnet I can’t ignore. “Mother Earth knows all about life and death, petal. All things live, and grow, and return back to her. It’s only that people get in her way and screw it all up sometimes.”
When I am 11 years old, I’m picking at the grass around my feet as I sit in front of Ada’s grave. It’s brown and dead, and where I once loved the summer air, I find myself choking on its heat, chasing a feeling of nostalgia buried six feet beneath me.
That same day, a 16-year-old tells the world that it will go to ruin long before we are engulfed by the sun. It’s the only thing I’m glad Ada won’t be here to see.
It’s that day, with the heavy hotness of the mid-august sun trailing down my back, that I look to the dry dirt settled over Ada’s name and the dead flowers crushed between my palms, that I believe we need to change.
Adam Chang, Sarah W. Hirschfield, and Naomi Shifrin:
The always-stressful experience of boarding airplanes reaches its climax when I sit down and reach for the air vent and find there isn’t one. I’m hot and bothered and my sweat takes forever to evaporate without the vent. But it’s more than that. It’s the feeling of losing control of even the air around me, after having given up every other bit of agency—no liquids through security, no easy bathroom breaks unless you’re in the aisle seat, no stopping this pressurized metal tube shooting into empty skies.
There’s no control when climbing mountains––the blistering sun quickly trades places with turbulent wind and the unforgiving darkness of night, every day the same cycle but you always forget. That the dampness and exhaustion of mid-afternoon are only temporary, how surprising it is every evening when cold erases any memory of the sweat, how reassuring every morning is when light and warmth return.
When I lead the freshman orientation backpacking trips here, rain and cold and darkness occasionally tempt me to skip cooking dinner, to just pull out tortillas and cheese instead of fucking around with camping stoves. But something innate tells me that it’ll be worth it, and so we always cook. Maybe it’s the truly universal human experience of heating food, or maybe it’s my Chinese upbringing—my family almost never ate uncooked food (cold salad bars in the college dining hall took some getting used to). In any case, there’s something tranquilizing about hot food.
Yet, even as a mostly vegetarian, my favorite foods are raw fish and raw meat. Tartare, ceviche, Ethiopian kitfo. On Easter Island, my most treasured memory was of buying fish freshly caught from the Pacific, barely searing some pieces and making ceviche out of the rest. Of eating raw, of giving control back to the ocean and the Earth.
Hot damn. Lost my wedding ring in the airplane can. No seating room, only stand. Shout out to my aviation fans.
Hot fire on the climate change protest. Lost hires on the migrant-range forest. I play Fortnite and Team Fortress. I look skinny in a corset.
Hot chocolate coming out of the snot faucet. Welcome to my ransom mansion. Surprise! You’re on phantom candid camera. Lost it.
Hot dog. Named Perry. Left him in my hot car when I got Ben and Jerry’s. Came back to the situation, scary. Dead dog. Next stop: sanctuary.
Hot man. What’s his name? Mile high club, please? Sex on an airplane? Insane in the membrane of this man’s pain. Shame!
Hot or not? I’m the hotter thot. My man’s going to save the spot, pay the cops, change the lock. I’m a raging hawk, war! The name’s condemnation and scorn.
Hot shit. New trend, I’ll cop it. New friends, can’t stop them. My office hours are walk-in. Miley Cyrus, twerk, quit pop and lockin’.
Ice, ice, lately. I take the coffee to go: plastic fight baby. Emotionally unstable, totally shaky. Turn face to the nice lady. Wakey, wakey, wake, bake, patiently—
Patience, patron. Whatchu making? Holiday Inn coffee express vaping. Juice in 25 colors. Got mothers up in arms, pigeon-tailed brothers.
College dining food. Oriental orientation, shoutout to Trump Nation. Kosher with the bacon.
Blistering sun. Back burning, no fun. Burning back, I’m the one.
Thank u, HEX.
Mass shooting on a star. Thoughts and prayers only go so far. High-speed chase in an eco-friendly car. Shot the masses in a bar.
Don’t walk the talk, you ableist fuck. I’m erasing my own luck.