Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Nineteenth-Century Cool

I have every intention of dying at Jingo Acres.

This thought is not intended as morbid; by it I simply mean that I wish never to move to any other house. I love the place, I love the way it combines hoary rusticity with lovely understated contemporary flair. I love the grounds, I love performing the upkeep on it, I love the garden, the orchard, the breezy screened porch and its wraparound view of a cathedral of green, the songbirds, the butterflies.

So unless something terribly untoward happens, I will cling to the place as long as I can possibly keep it up. If all goes as planned, then, it will never fall to me to have to sell it; with any luck, that task will go to the executors of my estate.

It will not be my problem, then, that the one, single Tragic Flaw of Jingo Acres will appreciably lessen its resale value. For you see, for all its amenties, its wonderfully well designed kitchen, its plantings of native Virginia fauna flora [oy! Vicodin!] in the front beds, its honey-colored bare-wood mouldings and windowframes, its ample closet and attic space -- Jingo Acres lacks central air-conditioning.

In all but the worst heat of the summer, an attic fan, combined with ceiling fans in most of the rooms, cools the house as well as any heat-pump you could wish for. Wisely planted trees shade the southern exposure, keeping the sun's heat off the roof. Only in the last few days of this waning June, as the really hot weeks come on, have we needed to resort to the window-units we keep in reserve.

Last night I sat and watched TV in the den, basking in the coolness of the room. The day had been one of the first truly miserable scorchers of the summer, the sort of weather in which the legendary Washingtonian humidity causes a body to come out in a muck-sweat that never dries. Toenail-fungus weather. Crotch-rot weather. Heat that only an anaerobic microbe could love. I wore only pyjama-pants and a t-shirt, all deliciously loose, air-flowing cotton. Bare feet. A glass of cold wheat-beer, its own sweat soaking the coaster-napkin to the point of disintegration, sat on the table.

I stepped out onto the porch to look at the night before going to bed. The glass door from the cabin was nearly opaque from the hundreds of country moths that battered against it, begging to come in and dash their brains out against the one light left burning inside.

The coolness of the night was a revelation. Yes, it was still humid and muck-sweaty, but the air, now at eleven in the evening, had cooled -- and this coolness was so much more alive than the dry, modern, silent coolness I'd just left. This coolness was alive with night-sounds, night-smells, the redolence of mud and mold and falling dew, with the muted racket of insects and frogs and birds. Breezes stirred the leaves of the walnut over my head, brought wafting in other, more distant night-noises: a dog barking a mile away, a car crunching on the gravel road, an owl far off up the mountain.

This, it struck me, was exactly the coolness that, years ago, was a grateful reward for a day's labor in stifling and relentless heat, in starchy clothing, in dusty fields and smoky forges and deafening manufactories and muddy stockyards and windowless, dark, choking work-spaces. The sort of respite that was longed for during the workday: Lord, please let this day be over. Please, God, bring on the night.

This was what city-people worked so hard for in the days before air conditioning, what laborers strove to earn: just enough scratched-out recompense, just enough extra whipout, to buy a ticket to the mountains, to the breezy beach in July, so as to enjoy the very thing I now consider utterly routine, a birthright: a little bit of coolness at night. In tenements packed to the rafters with workers, mattresses were spread on every fire-escape on every street in every city in the world, entire families in their night-clothes spread-eagled in the humid dark hoping for the blessing of a whisper of a breeze, dreaming, when they could dream, of a day when they could afford surcease from the heat.

Billions of us still operate under this calculus of cool. Billions still long for sundown when the evening zephyrs begin to promise a temporary respite from the daylight's cruelty. Billions still spread bedclothes on rooftops and porches and verandas, to catch a breeze in which to sleep. I have no real wish to join them -- my air-conditioned privilege, my rigidly controlled little 72-degree pleasure-dome, is far too comfortable to give up voluntarily. But here in this box, this tightly sealed, antiseptic ecosystem, I can't help feeling that I've unlearned a hard lesson that my ancestors knew only too well, and for this I am mightily sorry.

21 comments:

Matt said...

Best. Post. Ever.

Annapolitan said...

You're absolutely right. There is something particularly sweet and comforting about cool evening air, the way it caresses your skin in a way that air conditioning can't.

Oh, to be a kid once more on the sleeping porch of my grandparent's house in upstate New York, listening to the summer sounds of crickets and tree frogs saying goodnight to each other.

fgfdsg said...

Fantastic post Ned. I'm almost ready to move there myself.

Once we get over about 40 degrees celcius here in Summer, only refrigative air conditioning works, so I'm all too familiar with it actually being cooler outside on those nights. (Especially last Decemember, where we had 5 days in a row over 44 degrees. Ho Ho huuuuurgh).

Kevin Wolf said...

Yeah, AC. Appreciate it, I guess, but wish I could do without, and try to sometimes.

Jeremy Cherfas said...

Criminy Ned, you know how to bring a prickle to the eye of a recently divorced and thus homestead bereft guy, who used also to believe that he'd never leave the place.

As for the cool, well, yes, cool is its own reward.

isodo know what you are talking about.

The Viscount LaCarte said...

You just keep getting better and better.

Very_nice_post.

Sorry to say this, but I can't help but think RE:

This was what city-people worked so hard for in the days before air conditioning, what laborers strove to earn: just enough scratched-out recompense, just enough extra whipout, to buy a ticket to the mountains, to the breezy beach in July, so as to enjoy the very thing I now consider utterly routine, a birthright: a little bit of coolness at night. In tenements packed to the rafters with workers, mattresses were spread on every fire-escape on every street in every city in the world, entire families in their night-clothes spread-eagled in the humid dark hoping for the blessing of a whisper of a breeze, dreaming, when they could dream, of a day when they could afford surcease from the heat.

Maybe you should be writing for the RNC. You almost make their goals sound romantic....

Employee of the Month said...

Living in the desert, a goal is to escape air-conditioning. Air-conditioned home to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned office to air-conditioned store to air-conditioned home. Feel like you're living in a Biosphere. Any wonder I'm always looking to head up the mountains, down to the seaside and even out in the desert so that I can breathe. Cool is the new cool.

Excellent post.

Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

What a well crafted post!

Having grown up in the Midwest, I can appreciate the message here. We always had an attic fan, which produced a beautiful, steady breeze all night. Maybe that explains why, to this day, I'm such a nightowl.

The hottest place I've ever been was Thiruvananthapuram, India -- a city at nearly the southern tip of the subcontinent (just 8.5 degrees north of the equator). It was so unforgiving, I don't recall much relief even at night -- though I'm sure the beaches would have been cooler than our stuffy hotel room.

I've lived in Virginia as well -- spent about 5 years there (Falls Church, Arlington, & Alexandria) in the 90s. Now that I'm in Pittsburgh, just a few degrees north in latitude and perhaps a bit higher up in elevation, the difference is remarkable. We get that stifling heat only in the worst part of late summer, and the humiditiy is significantly less.

david said...

Beautiful post, Mr Jingo, that's why I like to hang out here.
But did you really plant native fauna? How deep do you have to dig the hole to keep them from running away?
Kindly provide photos with your reply, I've got a schnauzer here who, although not native to the area would look marvelous planted amid the hostas ;->

Neddie said...

But did you really plant native fauna?

Jesus. My only excuse is painkillers. Painkillers and this terrible, horrible, oppressive heat!

I need to get a nuyplg implanted in my brain...

Bobby Lightfoot said...

I won't permit AC in my home.

It damages my singing voice.

If I am forced to seek domicile elsewhere over this issue, seek domicile elsewhere I shall.

nash said...

Nice to have you back, Neddie.

I've lived in the South most of my life -- including central Texas, where a week of hundred-plus highs is not uncommon in summer -- but I got a real education in "the calculus of cool" in Florida, after Hurricane Frances in 2004. That was a slow-moving storm; we were under hurricane-force winds for most of a day. Frances was moving inland and weakening, and we thought we'd dodged the bullet, when suddenly, sure enough, the power went out. And stayed out. For eight days.

The first day without power after a hurricane, I found, is pretty nice. It's cloudy, windy, and cool, and you're exhausted but also exhilarated, because the storm had done its worst, and your house is still intact, and you're alive, unharmed, and can finally relax. You just open up the windows and, when the sun goes down, fall into a peaceful sleep, cooled by lingering breezes.

Then, the next day, the sun comes out. And the next day. And the next day. And the breezes go away. And the temperature climbs into the upper 90s. And there's no cold left in the fridge, and hardly anyplace has ice, and the power trucks are nowhere to be seen. It's bearable in the morning, but by late afternoon all you can do is lie there in the swelter, clutching small battery-power fans like piece of the One True Cross and swilling down warm bottled water. But night is the worst: then, you just lie there with rivers of sweat pouring onto the sheets, all the windows open, praying for some wind, a breeze, Brownian motion, anything to move the air just a little bit. Plus, after a few powerless days, many people in the neighborhood have gone out and bought generators -- and only a few of them have the decency not to run them all night, so through those open windows comes not fresh air but the abrasive drone of small engines. And you're one of the lucky ones; you get your power back on the eighth day. Some people are without it for a month.

The occasional cool breeze on those days and nights might as well have been the breath of God.

--nashtbrutusandshort
Categorical Aperitif

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Jesus Christ I sound like Li'l Lord Fauntleroy's yet-more-birdy-lipped cousing Assroy. What a twit.

Remove post? No, I shan't. I shall bask in my own humiliation, in the acrid juices of my well-earned ignominy.

A damned fine post. I like being hot. It's compelling.

But may I quickly return to petulant mode for the following strongly-felt conviction:

Swimming holes etc. are better.

And wearing bathing suits in them is strictly for th' hideous.

acmepxor, indeed.

Chuck said...

Or...

...you could just move out here to preternaturally clement Washington State. First day of summer, and, at one in the afternoon, I believe we may be about to break the sixty five-degree mark.

Took a meteorology class at the U of WA once where an exasperated professor regularly lamented teaching us anything about the weather because: "You don't have any! You think eighty degrees is hot! You think thirty degrees is cold!"

And, Allah and the Japanese Current be praised, it's true! True!

Linkmeister said...

Chuck, you should try the Hawai'i climate. If it gets below 70 degrees at night we get blankets out. Multiples of blankets.

Unholy Moses said...

As someone who lives a bit out of the way, I have found myself enjoying a bit of night air (which I'm usually polluting with a cigarette) after a hot day ... but you put it much, much better than I ever could.

That truly was amazing.

Jennifer said...

What a lovely post.

Ronzoni Rigatoni said...

WTF? The post disappeared. Damnation! Ennyhoo, Balls, to that. You cannot survive S. Florida's heat and humidity without a snorkle reaching to the stratosphere. It's goddam hot here. But I like working in the heat because I can drink a sixpack of Presidente and not hafta piss even once. Inna house, the AC is the lifesaver, altho' the pool helps.

helmut said...

I've mostly lived in tropical climes my whole life. I hate to be a party-pooper, but we have to remember that that good ol' AC is a big drain on US energy efficiency. We go to war for such things. More power to turning off the AC and enjoying a cool evening, even when living in a tropical climate.

Jennifer said...

Still a wonderful, wonderful post. I think reading it will have to become a summer tradition.

Alice F said...

What a great post it makes we wonder how we would cope without all the modern technology and gadgets such as TV, Dvd, automobiles and air conditioning units we would certinly find it difficult to cope without them.