A nation of icy theaters can't be too enlightened

September 17, 2002|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - My father described himself as a child of the Enlightenment, and he loved America for being the land that rational men of the Enlightenment had constituted, men who used words like "self-evident" and "reason," and who trusted Americans with the right to pursue their happiness.

And I, in turn, as my father's child, grew up loving the rational, Jeffersonian America my father celebrated.

But with the passage of the years, I've become less and less sure how much of a foothold reason actually has in this land of the free. This view of an enlightened country received its most recent blow this summer when I went with my family to the movies.

It was a sweltering day in Virginia when we went to the nearby Cineplex to see Steven Spielberg's Minority Report. As soon as we entered the lobby, the severity of the air-conditioning forced itself on my attention. The change from the outdoors was so extreme one could almost hear one's pores slam shut.

The outdoor temperature having been in the 90s all day, I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and the idea of bringing a jacket or sweatshirt hadn't even entered my mind. Now suddenly I was worried that I'd be too chilled to sit comfortably through a two-hour movie.

Maybe when my body has made the transition from the sweltering to the cool I'll be able to relax, I told myself. But by the time we were well into the previews, it was clear that time was not on my side. I went out to see the manager: Might you please raise the thermostat a bit in Theater No. 8?

No, the manager replied, I can't do anything. It's mandated from corporate headquarters that the temperature be set at the present level. And what is that level? I asked. It's got to be set at 67 degrees. Sixty-seven degrees! Why? That, I was told, is what the American public demands in the summer. But, I protested, it isn't even comfortable!

I'm not sure why I was so surprised. It's not as though there were anything so unusual about the experience, during the summer, of feeling cold indoors in public spaces in today's America. My wife and I have often gone into a restaurant in summer, and then turned around and gone out to find another, less chilled place to enjoy a meal.

But on that evening, with the theater manager, I was too steamed - despite the cold - to let the matter drop just yet. I've been here during the winter, I told him, and you keep the place considerably warmer than this when it's cold out. What sense does that make, to keep the place warmer in the winter - when people come in with their long pants and sweaters - than you do in the summer, when people are dressed in shorts and other light summer clothes?

Why spend good money to make the place colder in the summer than you will let it be in the winter?

That's what the American people demand, he repeated. And, thinking of all the frosty restaurants and malls where we've been blasted, his declaration was at least plausible.

Back in my frigid seat, huddling before the glare of Minority Report, I recalled the years of "energy crisis" and the image of our president - it was Jimmy Carter then, speaking to us in front of a fire in the hearth, wearing a cardigan - imploring his fellow Americans to make the sacrifice of turning their winter thermostats all the way down to 68 degrees. And the American people replied, Hell no! It's un-American for us to have to endure such intemperate cold in our homes.

Now in the summer we demand 67. Does that make sense? Given that both cooling and heating use up scarce resources - including cold, hard cash - you'd think that the thermostatic settings would be reversed, that we'd accept temperatures in the 70s in summer and in the 60s in winter. It stands to reason!

How is this unreasonable stance of Americans to be explained?

Is it a form of hubris, an American arrogance of wealth and technological power? Are we holding up a defiant fist to nature, or to nature's god, and declaring, "How dare you try to make us uncomfortably hot (or cold)! Look at us, we have the power to make it as cold (or hot) as we please."

Or is it a sign of our having become irrational consumers, so disembodied from the actual experience of our pleasures that we consume only the idea or image of our goods?

Whatever it is, it is hard for me to see a nation that insists on cooler temperatures in the summer than it will tolerate in the winter as enlightened.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer who teaches American studies at the Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico.

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