I really don’t enjoy air conditioning. Neither do the Italians for that matter, who have invented those skimpy scarves to deal with frigid American restaurants.
Air conditioning removes the aromatic—the visceral rich presence of summer fullness. But then I have to admit in the last dog days of August, it sometimes can’t be avoided (unless of course, you were one of the unlucky thousands still stranded without electricity for several days after mean Irene blew into town).
I want to hear the hum of the late-season cicadas, not the roar of air compressors. I try the overhead fans, throw open the double-hungs and French doors only to draw in a humid heat blast.
The shade trees, heavy in leaf and suffused with the darkest green chlorophyll, try their best to oxygenate a cooling calm. But even these grand masters give up their leaves, singed brown at their edges. They just can’t take it. And neither can I.
Back in my native stomping grounds of Kansas City, where the heat and humidity were incrementally more intolerable than here, we were taught to open the windows at bedtime and throw on the attic fan. The attic fan was a gigantic monster of child-mangling blades, terrifying to behold—an evil baby-eating Gorgon that thundered the whole night through on the third floor.
Pull-down shades would torque and flap once the monster was turned on and the drawn-lace curtains would billow obscenely. The lights of cars passing by would skim across the wall fluttering while the flaps and billows blocked their linear travel.
By morning, the monster was shut off and the windows and doors of the bedroom, living room and sleeping porch were pulled tight to preserve any ounce of moist, morning cool. Windows were darkened on the sunny side of the house and only on the shady side were they left half open.
As the day progressed, unapproachably dangerous oscillating fans whirred quietly with their finger-slicing blades, unscreened as yet by future child-protection laws. The scent of my grandmother’s powder, the aroma of pie baking and roasting pork tenderloin were not to be diminished by the future recirculating sterilization of air conditioning.
But, ahhhh, the arrival of those window-filling blasts of air conditioned refrigeration did change our lives because our parents’ bedroom— an off-limits, verboten, protected enclave, an adult sanctuary—was the first room in the house to be granted immunity from the Midwest’s stifling blanket of heated suffocation. And though we three boys clamored to enjoy this chilled domain, we could do so only on designated Sunday mornings in late August when we were let in to read the funnies and let out to eat our waffles.
Air conditioning also changed our lives in other ways. Because as our parents slept beneath the roar of refrigeration, we soon discovered we should shout, scream, watch TV and run about the house and beat each other up with no remonstrations or punishment. Our authority figures were totally disarmed by a muffling chill, of course it was also the end of the summer and our parents were most likely worn down by their boys’ endless vacation annoyances and just wanted to sleep, not caring if we really killed each other or not.
Soon though, the Edict of Nantes came down from the icy heavens above, and we were each granted a window air conditioner—ostensibly to calm our heat-generated frenetics and to make us sleep longer. Once granted though, the race began. Who could have the coldest, darkest room became a roaring competition.
This was soon stopped dead in its tracks though by the untimely demise of our Peruvian parakeet who was deemed “frozen to death” by our parents. We were so distraught that we were allowed a small turtle that could possibly weather the Watsons’ climatic changes a bit better.
Climatic temperatures controlled by window units, forced air backed up by cadres of compressors, swamp coolers, heat exchanges or even geothermal systems are an ever-constant discussion between couples, one of whom is invariably hot and the other cold. Our capability of radically altering our environments by conditioning the air could be celebrated, especially in those final weeks of August.
But with this capability has also disappeared the fine art of positioning and building a home to catch the cooling breezes, to allow the natural air flow to move through effortlessly. In planting a property, visual effect has superseded the practical aspects of shade in the summer and sun in the winter. Sunrooms and sleeping porches have all but disappeared from the vernacular. The concept of cross ventilation has been strangled in a labyrinth of ducts, returns and vents.