Crazy from the Heat

We usually raise the thermostat on our air conditioner at night, somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 degrees Fahrenheit. But with the ongoing heat wave we’ve been experiencing here in Rusk County, we’ve been keeping it right around 80 during the day and nudging it higher after sundown.

Our hope is twofold: to keep our electric bill down, while also acclimating to what looks to be yet another long, hot summer season. In a time where it seems most places seem to keep their climates in the lower 70s, a few degrees can make a world of difference in cost as well as comfort. But isn’t comfort relative?

Growing up out in the middle of rural Rusk County, we lacked central heat and air for a few years before my parents built the house in which they now reside. There were plenty of sultry days spent with a box fan propped in an open window to help keep it cool indoors. That is, when we were actually indoors.

Looking back, I can only wonder at how we managed. I remember having to take a shower both in the morning as well as the evening. But it wasn’t miserable, it was just the way it was.

According to a non-partisan study published last year, the energy required to air-condition American homes and retail spaces has doubled since the early 1990s. Doubled in less than 20 years! Those early 1990s being when I remember living tolerably without central air, but what about earlier?

Much like gas prices, economics, and even our ideas about relationships, there’s a “new normal” emerging about what’s considered tolerable for indoor climate.

What did people do in the days when dry 70-degree temperatures indoors were impossible during summertime? How did teachers manage to keep their students from passing out from heat stroke? How did anyone work? As tense as things can get up here when we’re on deadline, I can’t imagine having to do it while also sweating profusely.

Can you imagine what it would be like now, if air conditioning were as much a luxury for us as it is for many parts of the world?

Well, for one, I imagine things would move a lot slower. Haste is discouraged in high heat, and the three-digit days we’ve been having of late would make it downright uncomfortable to move any quicker than a snail’s pace.

Here at the newspaper, we’d have to throw open all the windows. I imagine each of us would bring back such obsolete artifacts as paperweights and desk fans. The boss would likely feel obliged to re-install some ceiling fans to keep tempers cooled.

Life in and around town would look rather different. We’d certainly spend more time outside.

Renters would break open the windows that have been painted shut for decades and renovators would be besieged with requests for high ceilings and better cross-ventilation. Screened-in porches and decks would become the rule instead of the exception. Utility bills would plummet.

Families would unplug as many heat-generating appliances as possible. Forget clothes dryers, backyards would be crisscrossed with clotheslines, and the outdoor grill would easily replace the hot stovetop. Dinners would be eaten on the porch or out in the yard.

With no advantage to staying indoors during the sultry hours before sunset would mean we’d have to see more of our neighbors. Rather than cowering alone in chilly home-entertainment rooms, neighbors get to know one another. Because there are more people outside, streets in high-crime areas become safer.

As a result of all this, a strange thing happens: deaths from heat decline. Elderly people no longer die alone inside sweltering apartments, too isolated to be noticed. Instead, people look out for one another during heat waves, checking in on their most vulnerable neighbors.

Children of all ages take to bikes and scooters, because of the cooling effect of air movement. Calls for more summer school and even year-round school would cease.

Experts find that kids don’t need as much time inside, rather they need the shady playgrounds and water sprinklers that spring up in every neighborhood.

We draw closer to each other as individuals and as a community, as we become more involved in the tangle of each other’s lives.

Hmm…  on second thought, that all sounds quite dreadful.

Maybe I’m just crazy from the heat.


One thought on “Crazy from the Heat

  1. I love this article. I”ve been contemplating the same types of things over the last few years. The year JT was born, we broke heat records almost daily (he was born in August, and I felt every temperature increase in extra swelling and discomfort!). Last summer, Raleigh broke records almost daily for 6 months. Early in 2010, I started working for a company that provides HVAC supplies and equipment to licensed contractors. We had a banner year last year, and this year looks to be more of the same.

    I’m not sure if you knew that my husband was adopted by his grandparents. His mom was born in 1920 and lived her whole life without a/c. One unbearable weekend we spent there, I observed her. She got up early and worked in the garden. She ate around 11:00. She got into bed and stayed there for a few hours. Then, she got up and tooled around the house. She spent the better part of the afternoon/early evening outside. We ate outside. The kitchen was blocked off from the rest of the house to keep the heat in one area. We put fans in the windows to blow air out. There wasn’t a lot of rushing around. It was a lot like what you portrayed.

    Southerners catch a lot of flack for being slower paced. When you have the opportunity to observe someone who lived through an era were central air was indeed a luxery, it’s obvious why that is.

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