Mad Dogs and Englishmen

It is said that “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun” and if you are planning to move to Texas, or new to this land, you had better heed this advice.

Texas is hot roughly 6-8 months of the year in the northern half of the state, and pretty much year-round in the southern half of the state. And by using the word “hot” I do not mean 75F/24C degrees with a slight breeze, as contestants of the PBS series “Britain’s Best Bakers” recently complained about when a “heat wave” melted all their ice cream cakes. When I say “hot” I mean 90F/32C degrees or higher, day after day after day, and 100F/38 degrees or higher in July, August, and September. (Even our winters are intermittent days of 30F/-1C degrees mixed with days of 60F/16C degrees.) Sunshine year round is the norm.  Wind is rare in the hot months, abundant in spring and fall as weather systems push through. We do not have a monsoon season.  Air pollution in the major cities just sits and collects for months on end. In the eastern half of the state the humidity is just enough that shade offers no relief.  As a comparison, world cities Cairo and Taipei have similar highs and lows, while Madrid, Athens, Calcutta and Hong Kong are cooler climes.

Now wait a minute, you say, don’t you have air conditioning in Texas? Why yes, yes we do. What that means is that for at least half the year or more (I run mine continuously about 8 months of the year, and occasionally in the winter) living here is like living in Biosphere 3. Inside the dome, it’s a pleasant, if stale, 72 degrees. Outside, it’s like the Bonneville Salt Flats. This is why Texas has evolved as a car culture, because it is just too hot and sticky outside to walk a few blocks to the train station or ride in the subway.

There are unforeseen aspects to living in this hot of a climate for months at a time.  Natives have learned long ago how to adapt: People wear natural fibers, in pale colors, in thin fabrics.  Shorts are acceptable attire anywhere. You can tell freshly arrived Yankees because they are the ones driving dark colored cars. If you fall in love with one of those shiny new track homes way out in the suburbs, the first thing you will do when you move in is: plant fast growing shade trees. The second thing you will do is: hang up sun-blocking curtains. If you have the funds, you will build a pool and a patio cover, replace your windows with thermal reflective heat-deflecting glass, and maybe decide to go solar. You will learn to run your errands in the early morning or late at night, and the best parking spot is not the one closest to the door, but the one in the shade. It’ll only take you once to figure out that anything you leave in your car, even in the shade, will liquefy (chapstick, hand lotion) or spoil (groceries, formula) and things you never imagined could melt, will melt (CDs, binkies, plastic toys, soles of shoes).  You will be arrested if you leave your child or pet in your car – even if for just a minute, even with the windows open in the shade. Your social life will start to revolve around breakfasts or dinner parties instead of lunch; kids will have soccer and baseball practice in the evenings.

If you do venture out at midday, the streets will be deserted – it will appear as if the Rapture has already happened and you are left behind. There won’t be a soul outside, not a kid playing in a yard or a mom pushing a stroller, much less a jogger running by, not even a dog barking in a yard somewhere. The mailman gets an air-conditioned truck to deliver the mail. Even the cicadas don’t hum till the early evening; they spend mid-day taking their siesta too.

I once ran into some German tourists, of all things, walking around the historic square in my quaint little town as I was driving to an unavoidable doctor’s appointment. The sun was beating down on them: mom, dad, two little kids. Tall and slender and tow-headed, like a family of giraffes. They were all wearing bright wool clothes and hats, beginning to sunburn on their arms and faces, and looked like they were about to pass out, confused from the heat. I could tell by their body language that they were lost, so I pulled over and asked if they needed help. They just needed directions, it turned out, to a spot just a few doors down. I showed them where to go and went on my way, but never forgot them. How and why did they come to my little town?  What were they doing out walking around when it was 105 outside? Surely once they got here and realized the true nature of the climate, they could get to a Walmart and buy some t-shirts instead of their colorful woolen vests?  Just the same way you’d buy a rain poncho if you found yourself in York or Rangoon on a rainy day? However, I remember when my sister-in-law came to visit us for the first time – in spite of our warnings, she brought a suitcase of what she called “summer weight” turtlenecks. It was 112 degrees every day she was here. We did nothing but sit in the pool all day, to escape the heat. The turtlenecks stayed packed away.

I’ve never understood why we didn’t adopt the Spanish colonial method of architecture and city management in Texas north of San Antonio or after WWII. If we had buildings with thick stone walls, shaded arcades, fountains all over, and lots of trees, we could save so much energy cooling our homes and offices, and life would be so much more pleasant. Aqueducts and rain gutters could collect and channel rainfall into underground cisterns, helping our persistent droughts. This style of building is found in hot climes all over the world, from Greece to Morocco to Mexico City to Bali, Pondicherry  to Sanaa, to Istanbul to Avignon. 

I've lived here most of my life, and every year about this time I start looking around, preparing for the coming hot season - in much the same way that northern folk clean their snow blower, stock up on fireplace logs, and buy new snow boots if the old ones have cracked, One of my ceiling fans is about to die on me, and needs to be replaced. (Yes, we run both the ceiling fans and the air conditioner concurrently.) I've got some new thermal curtains I am getting ready to put up, this weekend. (The cats destroyed the previous ones.) I'm taking bids from contractors to expand my a/c duct work into some different spots of my house that for some reason, never seem to cool down. Each year I add a few more pieces of loose linen clothing and sandals to my wardrobe. I'm still agitating hubster to put in a pool for us....our grill needs replacing, too - it's over 50 years old, and this time of year, it's just too hot to cook inside the house.

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