Keeping a Cool Head In Climatic Zone 7

August 3, 1984

Originally published Aug 3., 1984, in the Style section

People are confused about the weather of Washington. I shall explain basics:

Winter is cold.

Summer is hot.

Every year these truths hit the populace with the force of a thunderbolt.

You hear more complaints about the summer because the city has been occupied by quite talkative persons from the far north. Before they came you heard little comment about the summers.

Another common misconception is that Washington weather is different from other weather. It is, in fact, very like the weather of Philadelphia and New York, as anybody can see who travels there.

We are in Climatic Zone 7, an artificial tabulation made for the benefit of gardeners, the chief distinction of which is that our minimum temperature is between 5 and 10 degrees.

Because of the sad geographical defect of there not being a range of mountains to the north, there is nothing to stop the Arctic ice from flowing down into the Potomac except wearing out on the journey and in uncommon winters our temperature will fall several degrees below zero.

A point to notice is that the temperature is supposed to vary from the average mean. If normal for today is a high of 83, then it takes no great wits to foresee that on this date the high one year may be 93 and another year the high may be 73.

The first week of June may be chilly or hot. If it is gray, rainy and cold, everybody assumes the end of the world is at hand. If it is hot, people ask where the spring went. The fact that perfectly comparable temperatures, rains, heats and storms have occurred commonly over the past two centuries here does not seem to occur to the mechanically minded, weaned on network news.

Another thing you will notice: some people simply do not love the sun. The English don’t, having rarely seen or felt it. They treasure a day in which briefly the daystar revs them up to 75 degrees. And I have known the men of Paris to faint on the streets when the temperature reaches (rarely) 85. The women there, as everywhere else, are stronger. Though I did have an aunt here who suffered terribly from the cold and I once said she was supposed to suffer less than a man since she had that extra little layer of fat, to which she replied she knew of few things colder than cold lard. Anyway, it seems to me it was men and not women that kept falling out on the streets of Paris. The other chief difference between women and men is that men faint more often in emergency rooms, when holding kids who have cracked their heads open.

Of course you will be miserable if you bundle up in wool, as we do around here to show people we can afford suits and are above vulgar considerations like comfort. So be it. But the Indians did not wear wool.

You will also be miserable if you live in a poorly ventilated rabbit warren in the sky without cross ventilation. We were designed, like gorillas, to have air all around us.

Here it is comfortable in 97-degree weather if the east and west windows are closed and shaded and the doors north and south are open. It does no good for there to be a delightful breeze if the dwelling is ineptly designed to shut it off.

There are not many bugs in Washington. I never run into mosquitoes. You can therefore sit comfortably outdoors any night there is not a hurricane. And in the hottest afternoons the prudent person who has constructed a little shelter of posts and perhaps lattices covered by a grapevine will find the temperature pleasant.

Of course, if one wishes to stand bareheaded and wool-wrapped at 2 p.m. in the middle of a parking lot, one will lack comfort.

Modern inventions are not all bad. Ceiling fans, which only arrived about 1880, are better than punkahs, and floor fans are excellent when supervised by people of good sense who know which doors and windows to open to encourage the breeze. They do not work right if windows are shut.

There you have it, then — posts and grapevines, windows open north and south, clothes of cotton all fitting loosely. Summer is God’s way of telling us not to dash about like headless chickens. It is not as necessary as some people think to see how many quarters of the city can be traversed between 2 and 3:30 p.m.

There is a strong connection between complaints against summer and general idiocy. I know (or at least charitably say) a good man may suffer here in temperatures near 100. But one can only wonder if these complaints do not stem largely from those who fear to lose body poisons through the benign influence of the blessed sun (sweat). Who are lovers, perhaps, of darkness and intrigue, fomenters of plots and conspiracies. Persons one does well to stay away from at any season.

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