Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It's not the heat....

....oh forget about it. Of course it's the heat. The humidity part of the rest of that expression, "it's the humidity," is mostly nowhere to be found, at least here. But a dry heat, Arizonans' protestations notwithstanding, is still hot. It's so hot the grass is stressed, so it hasn't grown at all and I don't have to mow it. That's a small recompense.

It's at the times of these temperature extremes, of either heat or cold, that my imagination goes to those who had to brave them without the taken-for-granted ability we now have to change our own micro-climates. When I lived in Boston and experienced true winter cold for the first time, I thought of the Pilgrims, and, beyond them, to the Native Americans who thickly populated that area before any Europeans came. How did they survive that bitter cold? Or is it all a matter of what you're used to? (Then again, they did die early.....)

I am old enough to remember what it was like before central air conditioning. My Grandma Mac's house in Washington had what was once a common accommodation in all DC rowhouses: a sleeping porch on the back of the second storey. To the extent possible, people lived outside when it was too hot and still inside. They stayed on their large front porches most of the day, where they would sit and fan themselves, watching the rest of the world move about in heat-induced slow motion. Sleeping was "outside," too, on the screened porches built for that purpose. (Those old houses are worth fortunes now, and the porches for the most part have been closed in and made into bonus rooms.) I suppose there were also electric fans to blow the moist air around and create a breeze, so you had the illusion of cooling off, but you still must have stuck to the bedclothes.

Before my family got a window air conditioner--which as I remember did a pretty good job, with enough time, of cooling both stories of our house in Falls Church--we used a huge window fan given to us by my Aunt Grace and Uncle Charlie. It fit snugly into a regulation-size house window that was fully open. You installed it so that it would blow out. First, you closed all other windows in the house except those in the rooms you wanted to cool (at night, the bedrooms), then you turned the fan on. It created a vacuum in the house, sucking all the hot air out and forcing the cooler, outside air in through the selected open windows. The smaller the opening, the stronger the breeze. It did an excellent job of cooling down the bedrooms enough to be able to sleep, but there was still the problem of the humidity. That was uncomfortable, but you dealt with it because you had no choice.

In the daytime I contrived to do as little as possible. We had a screened side porch where I spent most of my time on a cushioned glider, doing my best to ignore my mother's complaints about "that awful music" on the radio that kept me constant company. Sometimes Judy and Don, my two age-mates and proxy brother and sister on the street, would come over and we'd just sit, maybe play word games--one summer the local radio station had a contest that challenged you had to find as many words as possible in the slogan of a local pharmacy. ("Don't say 'drug store,' say 'Drug Fair.' There's a big difference!") That killed countless languid hours. Another summer I sat at a card table on the side porch working on a mystery story about somebody poisoning the glue on S&H Green Stamps. The summer ended before the mystery was solved.

Now here most of us sit in centrally air-conditioned luxury, and we still have the temerity to complain. If you stop to consider, it doesn't take long to realize that we are a pampered people for whom technology has made life possible in what used to be considered climates fit only for Arctic wolves, gila monsters, or extremely hardy humans--Alaska winters and Arizona summers come to mind. The irony is that the more fossile fuel we use to power the very technology that makes life on a large scale possible in these places, the warmer it becomes, and the more we need to cool ourselves, thus burning more fossile fuel. The classic endless circle.

I dare you to be the first to turn off your air conditioner!

PS: the picture above is sunset on Hopkins Prong, July 18, 2008. Couldn't resist.


Kat said...

Of course you couldn't resist that absolutely gorgeous sunset. I appreciate your having posted it!

My bedroom, on the third floor in the back of the house, has an air-conditioner, and before I got it, I couldn't sleep upstairs. I used to pull out the couch downstairs and sleep there. Nope, I don't accept yopur dare.

What I miss from when I was a kid is all the neighbors sitting around the yard during the summer, chatting, laughing and trying to stay cool. Air conditioners keep us cool but far less cordial than we used to be.

Ralph said...

You're absolutely right about closing ourselves in from the weather. Kat. We are hermetically sealed.

Mim said...

Now that is one amazing sunset!Thanks for sharing it.
And loved your musings about hot summers without air conditioners, and sleeping porches.

Anonymous said...

We lived a while close to the War College when my Dad taught there in SW D.C. and every day the military would deliver huge blocks of ice to our house and we would set it behind the fan. It was amazing because it cooled the downstairs level in about 30 mins and lasted the rest of the day. I always remember my Mom handing the guy two bits for the ice. They used these long claws to hoist it up the stairs to the front door. That was our A/C back in the 50's. Z&Me

Ralph said...

Z&Me, I had forgotten about those iceblocks, and the ice houses they came from. And those huge hooks they were carried around with. We never used an ice block for air conditioning, but we bought them to put in those big,l insulated metal ice boxes that were made for camping. I live very near what used to be the old ice house on Four Mile Run off Columbia Pike. When I cross the bridge over the Run, I can look down and imagine I still see that ice house. There's some sort of building down there still. It was still being used well into the 80s.

Peewit said...

Well I'll take up the challenge as we don't have AC in the house here. Then the hottest it has ever got here is 39°C.

We do have AC in the office but it has been broken all year. We have been told there is a shortage of refrigerant gas. Shortage of money more like! It is funny though that our landlords have started sprucing up the building just before a lease break next year. I suspect we'll be on the move soon

Ralph said...

Peewit, 39 is HOT!! But I realize it's not all the time. I can remember when office buildings weren't air conditioned and folks just had fans and open windows. Now all the buildings are sealed shut and if the a/c goes off workers are sent home!

Cuidado said...

I don't like sleeping with nor do I have air conditioning. I have a pattern of opening doors and windows and using fans to their best advantage and am comfortable enough without extraneous air conditioning. Could be we're a few degrees cooler and are surrounded by water that makes a difference.

Ralph said...

Cuidado, your "could be" sentence is the key. It's very much different up there. I've no doubt you'd find the heat here stifling. Because we do, and we're supposed to be used to it.

Jenny said...

One of the things I don't miss about living in Kentucky is the heat and humidity. We didn't always have air conditioning there, but found it to be very necessary beginning in April all the way into September. It was set at 80, but still managed to come on a lot and was really a requirement to keep down the humidity in the house. Here in British Columbia we have a semi-desert climate and the high elevation means the temperatures are pleasant--some people might find it cool, but I much prefer it to being trapped indoors all summer. That's almost like being snowbound during the winter!

Ralph said...

Sounds good out there to me, Jenny. And the summer conditions aren't "almost" like being snowbound--it is the same thing. There are two times of year around here when the weather is jist too miserable to be outside: high winter and high summer.