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Living Without AC

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For many years now, I have lived the majority of my summer days without air conditioning. Oh, I have it, I just don’t use it very often. I want to suggest that doing without it doesn’t entirely suck, and that you may want to consider letting a little more hot air into your life. But this is no sermon: A/C is one of humanity’s greatest inventions, and I begrudge no one who chooses to blast away with it in home, car or work, to their heart’s content. This goes double for anyone who has ever had no choice but to go without it.

Sure, I save some bucks. And sure, I like the idea of reducing my carbon footprint. But mostly, I roll without air conditioning because I want to live somewhere, instead of anywhere. I live in the South, where it gets really freaking hot in the summer, and specifically I live in Charlotte North Carolina, in a particular house on a street in a neighborhood. Without AC, the windows and doors are flung wide open, so I not only get the breezes, but the sights, sounds and smells of my surroundings. To be sure, they aren’t always agreeable or interesting, but they keep me oriented and aware of the living, unique community that surrounds me.

Air conditioning, for all its glories, flattens life out across time and space. It requires, literally, that you exist inside a bubble, through which the seasons, the days of each week, and the hours of each day take on a similar cast. Likewise, the place you occupy begins to lose definition, so that it matters less and less where you actually are.

Because air conditioning is expensive, we strive for efficiency, with the unfortunate side effect of increasing our isolation from our surroundings and our neighbors. Increasingly, our cars are opaque, our front porches forsaken for backyard decks or home theatres, and our curtains drawn, the better to control the environment within.

None of this outweighs the vast benefits of AC, but it might give you pause to wonder about the effect on the bonds between us and our communities, and each other.

There are other benefits to living close to the weather. A breeze is all the sweeter when it actually serves to cool you down. I recall from my days in a corporate office the unpleasant sensation of walking from a crisp cool office to my car on a hot summer day. The weather seemed more hostile then, a thing to be dreaded and escaped from. Now it seems more like a companion, familiar at least, if not always welcome.

During all but the most miserable heat waves, there are blissful moments of coolness, and many moments that are hot, just not so bad as the worst of the day. These are small gifts, occasions for simple gratitude. It’s nice to avoid the misery of hot weather, but doing so comes at the expense of the simple pleasures of sweet relief.

Still, there is no denying that heat and humidity can be oppressive things. It must be the Stoic in me that sees virtue in tolerating them. In fact, I couldn’t tolerate them without a number of coping strategies. One is a convertible, and the coolness, in every sense, that I have imagined it gives me ever since I was a kid. Another is that I’m quite willing to cheat if necessary: I’m a Stoic, not a martyr. It helps too to have friends over, who I wouldn’t dream of making suffer for my philosophy.

My favorite coping strategy is an old house. Old houses were designed to work without AC, but it may be more accurate to say they are congenitally inefficient places to house air conditioners. This offense against my flint-hearted aversion to waste probably has as much to do with my lifestyle as any other consideration.

Even so, if you are going to go without AC, an old house is a great place to do it. They are happiest when allowed to breathe, and thought was given by their designers and builders as to how they met the sun and the wind, and how to keep them and their occupants as naturally as cool as possible in hot weather. Today’s dwellings by contrast, seem more often offended by the notion of natural cooling, and prefer that you keep them sealed tightly shut, recycling the same air over and over again, the better to minimize energy use.

One other secret weapon allows me to live in the heat: I have simply gotten used to it. Hot weather just doesn’t bother me as much it does other people. One side effect of living in a time of relative peace and prosperity, for those of us lucky enough to enjoy it, is the withering of our ability to tolerate anything less than efficient perfection. So it is that most people I know, those with the means to live in year-round comfort, seem profoundly out of sorts with anything that falls short.

Perhaps this also helps to explain why we lately seem to be so intolerant of each other. When perfection seems possible, it is all the more irritating to put up with anything — or anyone — less.

I am as susceptible to this as anyone. I seem no longer prepared to travel anywhere that lacks good Internet access; and nothing annoys me more than an app crashing on my phone, or taking fifteen seconds to load instead of five.

photo of vintage thermostatLiving without AC is my way of reminding myself to confront the world as it is; to connect myself not only with my present surroundings, but also my past, filled with people who would be gobsmacked to see the easy luxury that has been my birthright and appalled to hear my complaints and inability to cope even temporarily with what they experienced all of their lives.

Now, if you will pardon me, there is a nice summer breeze I’d like to catch.

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The Life of Old Houses.

by Joe Copley, the founder of OldHouses.com.

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