[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

The August air outside today is thick, steamy and hard to breathe. An online weather advisory for Mercer County, New Jersey, where I live, announces that air quality in the region has reached or exceeded unhealthy levels. Exceeded unhealthy levels.

In my air-conditioned car, I drive to an air-conditioned market for refrigerated mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, red peppers, cucumbers, an avocado, lemons, a quarter of a watermelon and vanilla ice cream. I pass no other old people on my way, and very few other people. I see no young with earphones jogging the streets.

What did folks do before air-conditioning? If they could afford to get to a beach, the children frolicked in the water and the old sat with their feet in it. If they couldn’t, they darkened their rooms, fanned themselves, drank lemonade and waited for a breeze. Some of the old ones died. Few lived as long as me.

I’m not kidding. Philadelphia, which is near Mercer County (although in Pennsylvania) and shares its climate, was the capital of the new United States for the nation’s first ten years. Everyone in government went back where they came from every summer because the hot, soupy weather was deadly. Year after year, thousands upon thousands of Philadelphians died of yellow fever (carried by mosquitos), and sometimes malaria, if not respiratory insufficiency.

We may call ourselves lucky to live now, not then. But although electric power is a public utility, the price of which is somewhat controlled by policy concerns, it still isn’t cheap. Not everyone can afford to run air-conditioning twenty-four/seven. And when the demand is high, power can fail. You might also consider how long our present sources of power may last and the environmental risks connected with developing alternative sources.

A day like today reminds us how tenuous and fragile human life really is. As a wise reader recently observed, the natural world is a brutal place – from which we distract ourselves with ephemeral diversions and the comfort of friends.

Give thanks for diversions, friends, cold lemonade. And let’s hope for better weather tomorrow.

21 thoughts on “WRITING SHORT: 37/50

  1. In pre-AC, people knew all kinds of clever things to stave off the heat. Houses were built with wide porches to keep the sun out of first-floor rooms. They had windows that opened and cupolas on top of the third floor roof to allow hot air out and create a breeze, or at least a movement of hot air, up through the stories of the house and out the top. Awnings over windows (hardly ever see an awning now.) Big shade trees strategically planted to keep the sun off the house.

    Of course, only people of means could afford such accessories. As you said, poor people in the cities were pretty much stuck. In Baltimore’s rowhouse neighborhoods, where even the tiny rear yards were concrete, people lived on the stoops and sidewalks in the evening. In Washington, on unusually hot nights, entire families slept outside on the grass (as late as the 1940s and 50s) in parks to escape their hot homes. Southern towns like Washington were sleepy towns in summer because people stayed inside, or on the porches. If you had to walk somewhere, you walked slowly, with a hat on your head. People even talked slowly.

    Commercial buildings were built with high ceilings and ceiling fans were everywhere.

    Soon, humans will lose all memory of such lifesaving measures, if the electric grid doesn’t fail soon. It probably will happen; But maybe not in our lifetimes.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. At least you have Obama who stated that this is the last generation able to do something about climate change. Heaven forbid if Donald gets his way. What can one do?
    I am pleased you go for the red peppers and cherry tomatoes, Nina.

    The rapid advances made in solar and storing power means that coal burning will be a thing of the past. The prediction is that the cost of generating power will fall but if the energy companies will pass on those savings…? I am not so certain.

    I noticed people are buying $100 million apartments in NYC and then chose not live in them for the sheer delight of ‘able’ to afford doing that.
    There is a lot in that.!

    Thanks for another great article,Nina.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Donald getting his way? I don’t think so. According to the latest bulletins, he’s driving away Hispanic voters in droves. As for falling costs of anything, where do you think the “savings” go? You know the answer to that one. But don’t worry about the folks stashing their millions in Manhattan apartments. From what I hear, they’re oligarch Russians and oil-rich Saudis making smart investments with their excess money. At least if they’re not on the premises, they won’t be running the air-conditioners and crashing the city’s power!


  3. It’s good to hear you are able to travel in comfort, Nina. We have solar panels and will buy battery storage when it’s advantageous. We’re the lucky ones. It’s fascinating reading about your environment and how you live.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When you talk about solar panels and battery storage to a lifetime city dweller like me, Barbara, you’re speaking a foreign language! I read about solar panels in architectural magazines, but haven’t seen one yet. Battery storage? What battery?

      As for my traveling in “comfort,” I don’t know that anyone in America still drives a car without air-conditioning in it, unless the A/C broke and is too expensive to fix. But I’m glad you find my air-conditioned trip to air-conditioned “Whole Earth” fascinating!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I was in my home town, SE Pennsylvania, last week and remarked how I didn’t see a single child outside on a warm, sunny afternoon. Most were inside in the A/C, no doubt. Times have certainly changed, we didn’t go home except for meals and when the street lights came on at dusk. I shared a room with 2 sisters, one small window and a rotating 6 inch fan. We survived. ☺


    • I think, Van, that extremes of weather are much easier to children to tolerate, especially when they’re having fun playing. I too remember playing outside in the broiling sun in a sunsuit, and playing in the snow in a snowsuit, while the adults either mopped and fanned themselves or went “Brrrrr!” But while you and your two sisters were “surviving,” I’m sure the very old had a much harder time of it. Even now, in every heat wave, I read of one or more elderly persons expiring in overheated, under-ventilated rooms.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Exceeding unhealthy levels–and reaching lethal ones? That is scary! My 95-year-old mother remembers people sleeping on fire escapes in pre-air-conditioned Brooklyn. My husband’s family slept on the porch in Phoenix, where summer daytime temperatures of over 110 dipped to 98 at night. No humidity maybe, but trust me, that dry heat is scorching.


    • It did indeed feel lethal, Martha. I held my breath till I got back inside. But ah yes, the fire escapes. I’m not quite as old as your mother, but I too remember my own mother sitting on the window ledge that opened on to the fire escape, three flights up, patting away her dripping perspiration with Kleenex, and looking down on the steaming streets.


  6. Rita Stewart

    Talking to some of my oldie friends yesterday during this heat wave, we remembered growing up without AC, and survived with fans cooling us, in Brooklyn. Movies, stores, etc had no AC. The ice man would give us kids chips off the great ice blocks (egad, how unsanitary, would say the young parents now!) which were cool and refreshing. Yet, I remember those days with
    great fondness, never feeling as though we “suffered” through hot, endless summers. Amazing isn’t it, how memory through the lens of years gone by can seem sweet.


    • Memories of childhood are sweet, Rita, and as children, I don’t think we suffered at all from our un-airconditioned summers. On the upward cusp of life, children seem equipped to tolerate extremes of temperature (and many other difficulties) much better than those of us on the downward cusp. After all, they have to be able to grow up to reproduce themselves, which — sorry to say — seems to be the basic purpose for which we are here. After they’ve done that, of course, the body begins to succumb to whatever is out there. Would it weren’t so!


  7. Jools

    I can’t easily tolerate heat and humidity that you must bear every summer; but today in London it is positively autumnal – I even had to close the windows because I was chilly. I have a portable a/c unit, but it hasn’t been out of the cupboard in 3 years!


  8. With the blinds drawn and trees surrounding the house and fans going, my childhood home was always cool (at least to a child). After we sold the home, the new owners cut down the trees. I bet it got toasty then.


    • Trees and greenery do help a lot, although if it’s muggy as well as hot, they’re hosts to all kinds of flying life that bites. I don’t regret the outdoor temperatures of my childhood; it was the green ants and mosquitoes that have always found me so delicious I could have done without. In those tests that ask you what you think of when you hear a word, I would match “summer” with “calamine lotion!”

      Liked by 1 person

  9. It’s very cold and wet here in the UK today. Yes, I worry about how whole nations have adapted to AC and wouldn’t know how to manage without it. My daughter in Chicago wears summer clothes indoors in winter, because her apartment is heated, outside her control, to summer temperatures inside. There must be a way to harness the sun to run the AC…


    • There probably is such a way to harness the sun, but until some corporation figures out how to make a huge profit from it, it likely won’t happen. It’s too bad your daughter’s apartment house doesn’t have individual controls in each apartment. Is it an older building? I used to live in a charming condo in Cambridge that was built in the 1920’s; the heating system was like the one you describe. We were always flinging open the windows in mid-winter to keep from sweating!


  10. …the environmental risks connected with developing alternative sources…? They are piddling compared with the environmental risks connected with NOT developing alternative sources! (Nuclear power stations, recent design, are probably as safe as highway driving –though I don’t have the statistics with which to back up that statement. And even up here on the coast of Maine. it is too hot to search for them.)
    You sometimes ask why we spend the summer in a small, relatively primitive cottage on Maine’s rocky shores. In part it is the blessed relief of the unfailing sea breeze , which keeps us delectably cool.
    (I’m not sure I could now survive a NJ summer — since a glass of cool lemonade (all that sugar!) is high up on my verboten list…. )

    Liked by 1 person

    • Did I ask that, Gwen? Surely not. I think of you (together with your husband) as one of the most staunchly principled people I know. Willing to throw over the comforts of bottom-line driven capitalist society for the unfailing sea breezes of rural Maine, which are, however, apparently not quite cool enough to research statistics just now. The risks I was thinking of — not that nuclear power isn’t the way to go; I think it is — were the risks of power plant explosions, even of recent design. (It’s hard to pre-correct for human error.) For example: in Japan not so long ago. As for highway driving, I don’t consider it safe at all, and avoid Route 1 as much as I can!

      However, all this comment on this piece, yours included, seems to have steered away from what I thought was its point, which got lost in the scuffle — that human life is precarious, always was and likely always will be, and is even more so for the old.


Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.