The Human Conditioning

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on May 17, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

The thief had been stealing money from us for weeks before we caught onto it. Just last night, I spied the hulking figure squatting inside my open window, waiting. I wanted to reach over to my sleeping wife, to protect her, to warn her—but the sweat-soaked sheets glued me to the bed. The guttural growls coming from the intruder failed to wake our dogs, leaving only me to see the robbery unfold.

I watched helplessly as the burglar greedily sipped at the air around us. I felt naked and exposed as the thought hit me: I had no defense against this cold-hearted criminal. Whatever power I’d had to protect my family was lost the moment that open window allowed this creature access… the moment my carelessness had provided the opportunity…

The moment I’d bought it on sale at Walmart.

Air conditioners, like cable TV, GPS, and the Ab Roller, are luxuries that somehow turn into necessities when our guards are down. Applying the old drug dealer’s adage that “The first hit is free,” most of us experiment a bit with our disposable income. After all, America’s economy is built upon indulgences like wedding china that will rarely, if ever, get used. These days, frugality can be seen as downright unpatriotic. If we’re not careful, however, this can bloom into full-scale addiction. Overnight, our cable package could include the Guam Channel and 24-hour coverage of Sudoku tournaments. Worse, it could lead to central air conditioning.

Like vampires or vacuum cleaner salesmen, air conditioners have to be invited in—an evil we bring upon ourselves. As anyone who’s seen the monthly electric bill can tell you, air conditioning is evil. Check the utility costs after a heat wave—I’ve had muggers who left me with more money. And yet it only takes a short time with air conditioning to make it irreplaceable. I find it impossible to switch back to the fan after a few nights delighting in the frosted windowpane cloud of cooled air. When the electricity goes out, my withdrawal symptoms would put Robert Downey, Jr. to shame.

The entire concept of air conditioning is designed to separate us from nature. We spend all winter cooped up and dreaming of warmer weather only to cower inside during July and August like snowmen afraid to melt. We install monstrous boxes in our windows that block out the sun, then close every other window and door to keep the cold air in—it’s as if we’ve moved inside the refrigerator. Also like the refrigerator, I always forget to change the filter—in this case, a large, netted screen so full of scum and filth that I shudder to breathe at all. The first weeks of use lead to endless sneezing, red eyes, and an insatiable desire for chest x-rays until I finally remember to wash the filter out.

My father, who grows smarter as I get older, didn’t believe in air conditioning. He didn’t believe in blinds, window shades or curtains, either, because his house was designed to get his kids out of bed quickly. If we were uncomfortable and the sun shining directly into our eyes each morning, we’d be more likely to get up and out of his hair. This really helped keep the electric bill down, and I’m beginning to think this might be a way to keep the utility companies from robbing me blind each month.

Oh, I’ll keep an air conditioner or two for emergencies, but they’ll only be invited in as guests, not tenants. That way, it’ll give me an excuse to break out the wedding china.

Bouncing and Insomnia

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star and Fairfield Sun newspapers on May 3, 2012, in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

One doesn’t often think of mattresses until lying sleepless in them for hours at a clip. In the well-lit showroom, all of them seem comfortable. That the “memory foam” will suffocate my wife and I in summer, or that the “dual zone” option will leave one of us sleeping in a crater, never enters our minds.

A night in a hotel changes that. We’re thrown into a no-win situation: if we love the bed, we end up hating our own.  When we get back, we’ll run down the laundry list of ways our bed doesn’t stack up, staying up all night adding foam layers or switching pillows. If we don’t like the hotel bed, we’ll be up all night playing with the AC or switching pillows. Only one thing is for certain: regardless of the mattress, we’ll hate those pillows.

Mattress comfort was not a priority in my father’s house. Like heat in the winter or “free time,” comfort took a back seat to utility. A navy man, he spent forty years sleeping on a bed sewn from two twins rather than paying for a king. (His queen did the sewing.) It must have been a nostalgic nod to his years on naval destroyers that led him to purchase the used trampoline bunk beds for his sons. To be fair, they didn’t start out as trampolines. Instead, they started out as threadbare webs of thin wire held together by hundreds of small springs. The only thing that kept them from tattooing their chicken wire design into our backs were the stained mattresses that appeared to have been taken too soon from their mother—they were as thick as a seventh grade mustache.

While completely unacceptable for actual sleep, they turned out to be fantastic trampolines. My parents hated trampolines almost as much as they hated buying king size mattresses. They refused to let us on them after a friend had been paralyzed in their youth. These army surplus bunk beds were perfect replacements, and I took to wearing an old football helmet to soften the blow as I hit the ceiling. Eventually, we stretched the wire netting until the beds became little more than wire hammocks inside the metal frame.

There was an element of danger that went far beyond the obvious risk of the rusted springs finally snapping. My family followed proper prison protocol: as the youngest boy, I was forced to sleep in the top bunk. At the slightest offense, my oldest brother would lie in the bunk below me as I lay sleeping. He would place both feet lightly on the springs of my bed, which sagged down toward him like an old water balloon. The mattress above squeezed through the wire springs like sausage casings, allowing for a solid footing. He would then kick his legs up into the mattress of my bunk, catapulting me a full five feet into the air. Sometimes I slammed into the ceiling, my face crushed against the white stucco and bearing its imprint for hours afterward. Other times I was flung past the bed altogether and landed in a heap on the floor, my Spiderman pajamas doing little to cushion the fall.

“What in the Sam Hill is going on up there?” my dad would roar upon feeling the thud.

“Nothing,” my brother would reply, glaring at me as if it were my fault that I couldn’t find a way to stick the landing. Random attacks such as these triggered insomnia, of course, but there was no “telling on” my bothers or sisters in my house. In my dad’s eyes, we were all guilty of complicity anyway.

And so, many years later, this is where the hotel pillow’s “memory foam” brings me. The so-called mattress upon which I was meant to sleep is a felt-covered slab of granite beneath me. My wife, who refuses to acknowledge its borders, has made the “dual zone” of the bed irrelevant. It’s three o’clock in the morning, and I’m typing this column because I know sleep will not find me here.

Instead, I need to remind myself to ask for a bouncier bed next time I check in. Insomnia is much more fun on a trampoline.