How hot is hot?

July 19, 2006

I sit in Salina, Kansas this afternoon basking in an air conditioned hotel room watching “Without a Trace” wondering just how hot can it get. It is 110 degree Fahrenheit outside. I have lived and worked in hot country, but it has been a long time since I experienced such heat. In the lower midwest we rarely if ever see 100 degrees. I haven’t seen it at my home in 16 years. Yet, when we lived in the central valley of California we experienced temperatures in excess of 100 degrees daily, for months at a time. I used to spend parts of my summer in the high desert of southern California running between howitzers, as a safety officer, in 125 degree heat.

Morocco

We adjust to the environment we live in, or at least we like to admit we do. In fact we no longer live within our environment. Instead we go out of our air conditioned homes and offices to experiences moments of heat and cold. But we no longer need to adjust to the temperatures. I only open my home up when the temperature and humidity meet my expectations. If the temperature adjusts 5 degrees either way I consider closing my home up and reverting to my artificial environment.

In my visits to Morocco I see much less of this adaptation. There may be some air conditioning, but the vast majority of individuals do not have the luxury of creating an alternative environment. Are they better or worse off then those of us who have technology available? I don’t know. It is another argument for another day.

As a child growing up in the midwest I was not privy to air conditioning. As a youngster, I remember walking into the Yonkers’ store in downtown Des Moines in the early 1950s and seeing and feeling air conditioning for the very first time. You had to walk into a space bounded by plastic sheets to feel the cool air. I thought it was great. Even then we altered our environment the best we could. Open the house at night, close it during the day. Use fans where possible. Spend time in the basement, or on the cool side of the house.

I have often pondered how the early pioneers trekked across the great plains day after hot day. How they retained the ability to endure the heat and the cold. Of course I know that they suffered and many died. Were they stronger than us. I don’t think so, but they were products of their environment and of the technology that was available to them. Just as we are today. Does that make us lucky. Yes and no. Yes, in that we have the ability to control our environment. No: When that technology doesn’t work we often don’t know how to respond. In a sense we have insulated ourselves from our own environment and it may be at our own expense. We don’t know how to dress for cold, we don’t know of the need for water in the heat, we don’t know of the dangers of being unprepared.

The control of our environment has allowed us to make technological progress, it has allowed us to alter our work habits, it has allowed us to remove the environment from our worries. I’m not sure Maslow ever thought about this. How would he respond to it. We move from the heights of comfort and safety to fear, anxiety, and sense of loss in just a moment. Several years ago we were forced to leave our hotel because of a tornado alert. We worried about our safety, we could get no word. Technology came to the rescue. 1500 miles away my daughter accessed weather.gov and gave us ongoing updates on the storm. We knew what was going on.

Our comfort breeds a contempt for natural disasters. Hurricane Katrina is an example. People scoffed at the idea of listening to the warnings of those who knew the dangers. When the worst happened they pointed fingers at others. Who was right and who was wrong? Both and others have been pointing blame ever since. Again, another topic for another day.

So how hot is hot? It’s a matter of perspective, experience, and our ability to control our exposure to it. Sitting in an non air conditioned trailer in the middle of the prairie, it is HOT! Sitting in a hotel room looking out the window, having turned the AC to a warmer temperature so I’m not cold, it’s not so hot. Or is it?

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