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How Are You Keeping Cool?

Ancient wisdom from the days before AC

One by one, we’re getting back in touch with the grid. By July 3, electricity was restored to three out of four households that lost power to June 29’s derecho. The storm has taught us all a new word and reminded us of some old coping skills.
    Even with power on, high summer is Mother Nature’s test of her creatures’ toughness. Over the last half-century, we’ve depended on human ingenuity to skip most of her regularly scheduled tests. But her pop quizzes invariably catch us unawares, and in our warming age she’s testing us early.
    So we swelter. And swear. As if air conditioning were one of the inalienable rights we celebrate this week.
    The younger you are, the worse the suffering. For if you were born in the U.S.A., power outages may be the only times you’ve had to spend summers as God intended, hot.
    Your elders remember the hot old days. And not so fondly. For air conditioning is a condition easily grown accustomed to. You may say you hate it, but when the thermometers melt, hate turns to longing.
    That’s the condition I was in when husband Bill talked me into air conditioning the boat. Grumpy with heat, I resisted the size and expense. But he had the last word: In these years of global warming, we’ve not been able to enjoy our boat, he said. And he was right. Nuzzling bottles of water just off the ice can help, but it can’t make still, sultry nights on the Chesapeake bearable. Even the dog tosses, turns and sleeps on the deck.
    So I concede. Air conditioning is the best way to beat the heat. Bring on the machines.
    But no machine — or power line — is infallible. So you’ve got to have backups.

Ways to Beat the Heat
    Leigh Glenn, whose stories you’re getting to know in these pages, is a follower of nature’s way. Her house in Cape St. Claire is air-conditioned — or was until June 29. In compensation, she’s one of BGE’s 100 percent Peak Rewards customers, allowing the utility to cut off her cool for up to seven hours. With temperatures in the house up to 86 before the power failed, she keeps cool by “making more tea and chilling it down.
    “Mint is cooling,” says Glenn, who is an herbalist as well as a writer. “So are seasonal fruits, especially berries and watermelon, which is also a diuretic, and keeps your water flowing.”
    Cool towels on your pressure points — elbows and back of the knees, wrists and neck — also cut the heat.
    If those homemade remedies don’t work, we can always go to the movies for a double feature of mindless comfort.
    Movie madness is one of my favorite ways to beat the heat. I learned it from the grandmother, Florence Martin, who lived most of her long life before the days of home air conditioning, and some of it before electricity lit up our lives. She and I slept many a summer’s night (including the eve of my 13th birthday) on the breezeway of my mother’s 1950s’ ranch style home, where two walls of jalousie windows let the air in and fans stirred up a breeze. Another of her cooling tricks was closing curtains, and windows, on the sunny side of the house.
    “We had dark shades on our windows to pull them down on the side the sun was coming into,” said Peg Burroughs, who combed the memories of her neighbors at BayWoods Retirement Center to bring us more ways people beat the heat before air conditioning sapped our coping skills.
    “We sweated a lot, drank water all day and found a shady tree to sit under,” Peg reported.
    “Fans were a very important part of our lives. There were hand fans in all the churches; funeral homes provided them and I thought it a very good way to advertise. Some ladies would take pretty folding fans with them to parties.”
    Despite the heat, you dressed up for church and parties. For ladies, dressing up included stockings. Older women, like Peg’s grandmother, dressed no matter what the occasion. “She wore everything,” Peg remembers. “Petticoat, dress and apron, and she’d change to a Sunday apron. I don’t know how she stood it.”
    Kids, like everybody now, wore the least they could get away with.
    Fans, Peg remembers, were a boon to humanity. “Electric fans sitting straight up were first. Then we stepped up to rotating fans, and then window fans.”
    An attic fan was a big deal. Peg’s father installed one, and with all the windows closed, it sucked up cool air from the basement.
    Of course your open windows had screens, another of human kind’s great inventions. You’d put them up in May, removing the storm windows to make way for them, so you could get any air coming in.
    “We didn’t cook much,” Peg remembers. Instead of carrying out, you had potato salad — made early in the day when you could still turn on the stove, sliced tomatoes, cold ham.” And, of course, lemonade.
    I drank a whole pitcherful last night with carryout sushi, today’s update of the traditional hot weather menu. Inside, it wasn’t so bad. We had power. The air conditioning was on, and the fans. At bedtime, I said a prayer of gratitude for both those new inventions, which humanity endured without until the miraculous 20th century.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com