Thursday, June 13, 2013

Early Summertime

photo of Wortham Fountain by Buffalo Bayou Park, Houston, by eflon, Flickr Creative Commons.
            For Memorial Day weekend, the traditional gateway to summer, I bused to Fort Worth to see two cousins. They're old enough to have 40-something kids, but these cousins run an active organ-building shop that employs people as passionate about music as themselves. They also busily interact with neighbors and friends, and sit each day on the porch to watch birds pull antics in tall pecan trees, red oaks, and blue chaste trees.
            They live all summer in their rambling, high-ceilinged old north Texas house with open windows. The cousins don’t use air conditioning, it seems.  
            Each morning of my visit, cool air wafted in the tall old casement windows, along with sharp and detailed bird-calls.
            In Houston--four hours south of Fort Worth and 20 miles from the Gulf  -- I had had the a/c on, at night, for exactly one week. My 1943 building has old windows, some of which stick. Plus, Houston is a place where humidity eventually descends. Of my three neighbors, two had used a/c since mid-March. I was being a hold-out, waiting till late May to turn on air in coastal Texas.

photo of Westheimer Street in Houston, J. Jackson Photography, Flickr Creative Commons.

            Still, I was a happy hold-out. The natural way pleases me: open windows, saving energy, feeling air. There are many things I could say about heat and humidity--one is that I learned to adjust more easily to both by living in northern states.

            Surprising, yes. In New York when humidity rose from the ground, women wore sundresses and skirts, and men wore the lightest fabrics. We opened windows, employed fans. The same was true in Chicago, in Missoula, MT (where part of the summer can be fire-cracker hot), and in Seattle for the occasional heat waves of a week or two.  
           Heat varied greatly, from place to place -- like the types of plants that can grow in each particular soil.
             Philadelphia, 80 miles inland, was hotter and more humid, for longer, than New York. In Chicago, as they say, it's cooler by the lake. My first Chicago summer was spent three miles west of the lake, where my roommate (a European) and I sometimes lay on the floor like beached cats, to feel the better air along the floorboards. When I moved nearer to Lake Michigan, I could usually catch a breeze by walking along the lake. On certain days, though, nothing short of setting sail toward Michigan seemed to help.
            Naturally, all this experience in withstanding heat on certain days, while being aware that eventually the heat will go away – as one is certain in northern climates – tended to build my hubris. I began to feel that I was a heat expert.
            (Yes, I was all about the high-velocity fan. My favorite brand is Vornado, if you want to know.)
            It’s true that sometimes heat is hard to take, even in northern climates. In normally temperate Seattle, a heat wave of a week’s duration could bring many of us to work with raccoon eyes -- not having slept well on our overheated bed sheets the previous night.
            Maybe peculiarly, I regarded all this as character-building. I thought of it as what we did to make up for weeks and weeks of cool weather, or for having lolled in sunlight on Lake Washington beaches crowded with suddenly lively Northwest-dwellers.
            Because I still feel a bit that way, I’m glad that I was able to sleep at the cousins’ house with the windows open on Memorial Day weekend in north Texas. Lying there with breezes wafting in, hearing the trees stir -- felt lovely. With a good-enough fan, there are nights when it could be done here in Houston as well.
            I guess that's what's changed for me: Now I see Houston's weather as varying, too. I see the individual parts, the mornings and late afternoons. In the same way that I now notice which plants we have at different points, I now see that some mornings start out cooler, while others don't--and that some evenings, after the crush of certain days, are sublime for sitting in wafting breezes with an iced coffee.

Photo of interior of Brasil coffeehouse, Houston, by Sarah Fleming, Flickr Creative Commons.

            It’s still early, but I like things about the summer. Definitely, it's a thing to prepare for, like winter in Chicago. Handily, my apartment is old, shady, and wasn't built with only a/c in mind. Dressing for the weather is important. This means choosing fabrics that breathe--which I can find at Goodwill but not at TJ Maxx and Marshall’s, which sell a baffling selection of synthetic-material, short-sleeved “sundresses." I carry Gatorade and water. During the heat of the day, I walk slowly and in the shade, and am not outside for long periods. Working indoors during the main part of the day helps. Because evenings can be nice, I probably wouldn’t want to spend them working, anyhow.
            Does this mean I'm finished with cold climates? Not really, no. It just means, I think, that I want to experience the many flavors of a place's most emblematic season. I want to hold back summer a bit, so that I can look at it more closely. I don't want it rushing by outside of some air-conditioned car--not all the time, at least.

            By the same token, I think I'd like to spend at least a week (or more) in fall and winter in the Northeast or in mountains. Because those are traditionally my favorite seasons, in crisp, golden-aired climates. And guess where the cousins always spent their summer vacations? Colorado or New Mexico. "We wanted to escape the heat!" said one of the cousins. Yep, I can get that.

            But it's early yet, and I'm enjoying getting to know the seasons here. A week after Fort Worth, I sat one night with two new friends at Brasil, a Houston coffeehouse with a large courtyard next to an arty street. In the leafy shade of palmettos and other plants, we can spend time with our weather. All three of us had returned this spring to Houston, and we knew the city. We looked around at the late-night shadows of trees, felt the light air, and collectively agreed, “You know, I like it here.”
photo of crape myrtles at Menil Collection, Houston, by J.E. Theriot, Flickr Creative Commons.