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.



  1. Wonderful pictures!!!

  2. I tend to wilt in the heat--and, for me, "heat" starts at 75 degrees! That said, I'm mostly glad to go without air conditioning in my home, which is also where I work. The quick switch between really hot and really cold seems like a lot to ask of my body. I much prefer hugging the shade and getting friendly with a high velocity fan, as you say!

  3. Hi Gwenn -- Yep, having spent all that time (seven years!) in the Northwest, heat definitely starts at 75F for me, too ;). But yeah, I also find that I take heat better if I live *in* it a bit, rather than dart in, then back to chilly spaces. For really hot places, I'm not knocking a/c completely. But I just like getting to know the season a bit, and dressing for it, I think.

  4. I loved reading this. I, too, believe in opening the windows and, when necessary, hauling out the fan (mine's a Vornado, too). I've often complained about how restaurants, stores, and offices turn on the AC like clockwork, whether it's necessary or not. It's good, I think, to get comfortable with a little discomfort. Our bodies can do amazing things to regulate their temperature. When we lived in Europe, our American friends who visited us complained that the Europeans don't (over)use AC the way Americans do. The Europeans have that right, I'd say.

  5. Thanks, Diana! Great to read your comment -- and I look forward to seeing your blog. Yes, that is how I feel about heat -- it's good to get comfortable with a little discomfort. Just a bit, ya know? A pal here recalled visiting Chicago during a heat wave and being in stores where "there was just one fan blowing." Sounds familiar, eh? Heehee. I mentioned that to my cousin in Fort Worth, and she smiled in recognition. Her husband says, "Fifty-one years!" He means 51 years of marriage, mostly without a/c. He's just teasing, too. I'd say the Europeans have that right, yes.

  6. I always thought "how about this weather, eh?" to be a pretty bland and un-creative way of starting a conversation but after reading this, I've realized that it may be one of the best ways to unveil someone's prevailing outlook on life, subtle aspects of their personality, and even strands of their spirtuality. From micro to macro, the question of whether to cope with or attempt to control the climate is always there. Thanks Catherine!

  7. Good to hear from you, Evan -- and thanks for taking the time from starting sustainability/nonprofit consulting companies (such as Brushett, llc) in Vermont to post a comment. This is why I hope people are rushing for the business -- for the insights. Cheers! (Oh, and happy birthday -- somewhat belatedly!)

  8. Well, I will admit to liking air conditioning, in moderation. I do NOT miss the blistering-hot summers I grew up with in Brooklyn, but they left me with a feeling that there's something comforting about air conditioning. It makes me remember how we would get permission from my mother to start the process: going into the kitchen and living room to turn on the clunky, noisy wall air conditioners, closing the doors to the back hall and the bathroom, going upstairs to close the bedroom and bathroom doors, so we didn't waste energy. And then the feeling of being cocooned in coolness.

  9. Hello, R -- Nice reading your comment, and yeah, I know what you mean about air conditioning -- the residual feeling of comfort. I recall the sound of an operating window unit from childhood, and being under cool sheets with my grandmother as rain pattered on the metal unit. Hee, I like your "process," there. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Summer to me (being in Seattle) represents that rare, exciting, and relatively unknown two week period between June and September (it varies) when we can open things up, both organically and inanimately, and breathe in the air of excitement, anxiousness, and that little bit of hope which we carry with us during the long grey "other" season that lasts about 300-345 days. There's reason for optimism at the beginning, when things are new and not too hot (for those unfortunate humidifiers living in the scorching, wet regions)though, I suppose like anything, too much of one thing tends to get old and stagnant after the newness wears off. Change is good, though people in San Diego seem to be pretty happy, so I don't know. It's funny how in Seattle, 3 days of 85 degrees is too much, and people complain about how nice it was when it was merely 70 and so much nicer; don't worry, it'll be back to 55 and a perma-wet ground soon enough. Having A/C in home seems so foreign to me, I'm just happy when I can leave the windows open at night and sleep breathing the open air coming in from outside. Nice read, it reminds me to be thankful of what I do have and what I don't have to suffer through, though I'm reminded that I need a vacation soon-- well, maybe after the niceness wears off up here; should be pretty soon.

  11. Thanks for commenting, Cam. Nice understated summary of Seattle weather, especially the bit about the unpredictable two-week window of summer, heh. It’s interesting – your description of perma-wet ground had *me* feeling thankful for what I have here ;). Funny after all this time that I’d appreciate weather here, considering that I’ve always liked best crisp Northeast autumn, and masses of snow and ice. I still think those things are grand, but I also like the counter-weight of walking outside on my lunch hour into sunlight, or multi-faceted thunderstorms (yes, I sometimes walk outside even then), to walk in the deep shade of live oaks and feel the warmth on my arms. And, as I said, evenings can be really nice. I walk around and marvel at the tropical flowers and vines everywhere, and the profusion of bird calls. It’s like I just discovered that the tropics and semi-tropics have something to say, too. So that’s interesting to me. But yep, I definitely agree about open windows. They’re the best. Here, I’ll just have to make sure to use a screen, though. Lizards get in, otherwise!

  12. Ahhh, to AC or *not* to AC -- or rather, to DC. I've noticed that any 'heat' that does arrive in helltown is exacerbated by the fact that very few buildings have air conditioning. The indoors gets quite stuffy quickly. By contrast, in Houston, moving between 100 degree streets and 70 degree offices caused the onset of pneumonia-like symptoms. But such recurrent temperature shock is very CWS, neh?

  13. Hi, Anonymous--Thanks for commenting! Where is "helltown" in your analogy? It seems to be where you live...My feeling in the Northwest was that, as in most places (outside of really green new buildings), the old buildings were much better for hot weather. Many of the new condos were concrete cubes facing in one direction, with large glass expanses. Those are okay if the weather is mild, which it usually is -- but if it's hot they catch the sunlight and hold it inside. The houses and old apartments have indoor expanses for holding shade, and windows for cross breezes. Yada, yada.

    As for moving constantly between hot and too-cold in the South and Southwest, I agree that it's an unnatural situation. I'm lucky that my current office doesn't keep ice-box-like temperatures. Walking to the bus stop and having short walks at lunch seems to acclimate me better to the weather--though there are many people here, I think, who barely touch the outside air once it gets hot. They go from house into garage, into car, to office parking garage, and up elevator to office. Then in reverse, or driving to restaurants at lunch, etc. Even though I sometimes arrive at the office a bit flustered from heat, I recover quickly if I slow down. To me, it makes me feel a bit more a part of things. : )

  14. Btw, "anonymous" didn't say that by "helltown" she meant Seattle. Do I share this feeling? I don't, heh, although I'm still glad I have more sun now. Peace to Seattle -- I had some very good times there, and made good friends, too : ).


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