How window air conditioners ushered in the Ice Age

I’m of the last generation that grew up without air conditioning as a standard feature in most homes. We got air conditioning eventually, but only after Mom and Dad were sure we’d endured enough blistering summers to remember what suffering was like. Parents back then were concerned their children might turn out spoiled, so they let kids do things like sweat in the heat.

We had a fan. It was a three-speed oscillating number with no safety guard, the kind that could cut your fingers off if you stuck your hand it. We were reminded of the danger every 15 minutes. The fan followed us from room to room. When we had dinner, the fan had dinner. When we sat in the living room, the fan sat in the living room.


Everybody we knew had fans. Come to think of it, I’m not sure air conditioning had been invented when I was a kid. The wheel had been invented, but not air conditioners.

Of course, we found other ways to stay cool. If you sprawled out face down on the basement floor, it could bring your body temperature down to 117.

We also kept the drapes in front of the big picture window that faced west drawn during the summer. Exxon could have started drilling for oil in our backyard and we wouldn’t have known until late September.

I was mesmerized by an aunt and uncle who lived on a farm and had a big window fan. It would pull in the cool night air and, sometimes, the smell of cattle as well. When it was really hot, my aunt would put a tray of ice cubes in front of the fan, so the fan would (theoretically) blow cold air. My aunt later became the president of Frigidaire. Not really, but I thought she was a genius.

Then the day finally came when Mom and Dad apparently thought we had suffered enough and they bought a window air conditioner. Dad hauled the monster home in the trunk of the car and had to get a neighbor to help heave it into the kitchen window.

Could that baby cool. The bedrooms were at the back of the house, so they had to blast it on high at night to cool everyone while we slept. It was great. The only downside was that the first ones in the kitchen for breakfast suffered frostbite. Every morning, when we’d be at the kitchen table chopping through the milk frozen around our cereal, Dad would say, “Boy, this air conditioning is a lifesaver.” It really was. We were officially spoiled.

Temperatures are soaring again today, as they promise to do for the next few weeks. I’ve grown spoiled just as my parents feared; I routinely grouse about the heat and humidity with all the rest. But there’s not a day I don’t look at the thermostat on our central air conditioning and hear my father’s voice say, “Boy, this air conditioning is a lifesaver.”

Summer takes the cake

I’m cutting back on calories because summer is here.

And, no, I’m not watching what I eat because I’m getting ready for swimsuit season. I avoid swimming pools. The reason I avoid swimming pools is because I also avoided chemistry.

In my mind, pools have always been large public bathtubs – with small children—and yet intelligent people actually put their heads underwater in large swimming pools. Other people, not me. I know there are chemicals that take care of germs and bacteria, but I just don’t understand chemistry well enough to trust it. Well, that and I’ve seen the massive amounts of chemicals dumped in pools and wonder why I’d want to swim in chemicals.

All of which takes me to the beach. (Oh, please, yes, take me to the beach! Preferably, a rocky coastline with cool temperatures.) There are no chemicals in the water at the coast and what small children do there is washed out to sea. I’m good with everything at the coast—the tides, the surf, the waves—everything except sharks, jellyfish and riptides.

But I’m not watching what I eat to get ready for the beach either.

I’m getting ready for cake.

Summer brings a crush of family birthdays—two in June, six in July and four in August.

By the end of summer, nearly all the grands will have rolled over to “new numbers.” It’s a very big deal, like when a car’s odometer rolls over to 100,000 or 200,000. Once they all change up to new numbers the new line-up will be: 9, 8, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, four-and-a-half months and four months. Our two new additions this spring threw our number run off a bit, but we’re keeping them anyway.

The only problem is that you don’t roll over to that many new numbers without working your way through a lot of birthday celebrations and a lot of cake. If I hit every family birthday from early June through the end of August, I could be eating cake every three days. That’s so much cake that, even on the off-cake days, I’d be too full to walk to the ‘fridge and make a salad.

Of course, nobody is forcing me to eat cake and ice cream at every birthday celebration, but children tend to notice if you’re not participating in the party. We are a family whose primary love language is food. To love is to eat, to eat is to be family.

We’ve tried streamlining all these celebrations by grouping two here and three there, or meeting up for a birthday donut somewhere. Even so, we often wind up in a party streamer, birthday hat, blowing out the candles, white sugar, carbohydrate sort of daze some weeks. You count the days you have to recover until the next celebration.

There’s no getting around it: summer means a lot of cake – no matter how you slice it.

Walking in the shadows of wild ideas

The parking lot for tourists is nearly empty when we arrive. We are alone on the pathway cutting through the Virginia woods this morning. We descend stairs and more stairs that drop sharply. This path and these stairs were not here 250 years ago when others wove their way through this forest. They were carved into the hillside by men and machines that followed many years later.

About a hundred steps down rests a giant gnarled tree trunk. The trunk is a marvel, pained and arthritic looking with exposed roots resembling claws. The aged and weathered bark ripples like thick strands of coarse hair.

The fallen tree is time’s reminder that there was life long before us. It is nature’s way of whispering, “It’s not all about you.”

I learned of this place reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Washington. Chernow says the story of Washington throwing a coin across the Potomac is merely a legend. However, Washington did throw a rock over the top of the Natural Bridge, a 215-foot limestone gorge carved out by Cedar Creek.

Washington had amazing arm strength. He also had powerful thighs, which made him an excellent horseman. Strange, the things you learn in a well-written book. Washington was never overly emotional, had unwavering determination and exercised granite self-control, particularly in public. His courage in battle was at times reckless.

Cedar Creek is moving swiftly this morning, spilling over rocks and gurgling as it passes on the other side of a stone wall. Nearly every surge forward in Washington’s life was linked to deep loss, usually the death of a loved one, his father, his older brother, his beloved step-daughter Patsy who died in her teens of an epileptic seizure.

Washington was not the flat cutout textbooks convey; he was complicated and occasionally deeply conflicted. He led the charge for freedom, but owned slaves. He was a walking contradiction, a man of considerable virtue willingly turning a blind eye to unconscionable coercion.

Saint and sinner all in the same package. The everlasting curse of humanity.

Along with others of his time, Washington committed to a crazy idea that had been tried only briefly in history. It was a vision for a nation not ruled by a single leader, a monarchy, a dynasty, or a chosen tribe, but by the people themselves. It would be a government of self-rule conceived in liberty.

The path takes a gentle turn. Around the bend, benches are lined in neat rows facing the Natural Bridge. You can sit and contemplate this magnificent wonder that soars gracefully framing a patch of sky.

Wild notions of freedom, liberty and self-governance would have had plenty of room to grow here. Boundless skies, the rush of water, the strength of the rocks and forests without end.

You can imagine the silhouette of a man of considerable height and strength launching a rock over the arch. It’s entirely believable.

What’s hard to believe is that fledging bands of poorly equipped farmers, craftsmen and merchants, freed African Americans and even some still enslaved, waged battle for self-government, freedom and liberty against the world’s greatest military and somehow won.

The vision is ours to keep and preserve now. Long live wild ideas of freedom and liberty.

Bless your hearts and bless our fast feet

We have returned home from a short trip to Savannah, Georgia, and would like to confess.

Our crime?

Walking fast.

I blame Southern Living magazine.

We booked a vacation apartment in a building more than 100 years old in the historic district. It had 12-foot ceilings, 9-foot deep windows with louvered shutters, and a balcony with a ceiling fan, and was bordered by huge magnolias. It was like stepping into my cache of Southern Living magazines stashed behind a chair in our front room.


Southern Living and I became one, if only for three days.

There was so much to take in—magnificent architecture, beautiful landscaping, live oaks, Spanish moss, historic monuments and grand mansions. I may have been overly excited, which causes me to move faster than normal, which is already fast. The husband runs nearly every day, which means fast is his default mode as well.

On Day One we took a two-hour self-guided walking tour and finished it in 45 minutes.

We bought a three-day parking pass that enabled us to park at any meter or in any parking garage, but never moved the car. Why drive when you walk fast?

On Day Two I sped read four plaques surrounding a historic mansion and began chit-chatting with other tourists about the history of the construction. Two blocks later we discovered they were trotting along behind us under the mistaken notion that I was a tour guide.

On Day Three we suddenly became aware that we were walking at quite a clip as we routinely outpaced horse-drawn trolleys and kept up with pedicabs.

We made a conscious effort to slow down as we started through another historic square. We even attempted to mosey. One does not walk in a straight line when moseying. One traces an elongated S, slowly weaving from side to side.

We failed at moseying, just like we failed at ambling and sauntering.

Northerners were not built for slow, easy strides, but for quick and jerky movements. We have been conditioned for speed by frigid cold, biting winds, large cities filled with heavy traffic, high-speed trains, and buses so long they have accordion middles so they can round corners. We move fast to survive.

If we couldn’t walk slow, maybe we could sit. We took a bench. For two minutes.

We decided if we were going to slow our pace, we should split up so we didn’t miss anything. The husband bolted for pictures of the house where “Forrest Gump” was filmed and I began photographing tables with white linens and centerpieces being set up for a special event near the famous cast-iron fountain at Forsyth Park.

It was a splendid trip. We are at home now, craving Leopold’s ice cream, cheese straws from The Olde Pink House and green beans cooked with bacon. Had we stayed one day longer we both may have converted to sweet tea.

It was nothing but excitement and the desire to take it all in that caused us to move with such impolite speed.

We do hope y’all understand.

Bless your hearts.

When life hands you lemons, call Legal-Ade

The sour incidents commenced full-bore about seven years ago. Prior to that time, they had been resolved quietly for the most part. No attorneys, no fines, nobody telling somebody to go suck a lemon. But then, they began drawing the ire of city officials. Police were dispatched.

The incidents occurred on warm summer days with cloudless skies—the sort of days that deliver a pressing heat that leaves you dry and parched, the same kind of blue-sky days that make you glad to be alive, thankful to be an American and breathe free.

Oh sure, the incidents could have been avoided. The offenders could have stayed inside, sat on sofas, watched television, binged on salty snacks and turned their fingers orange.

But they didn’t.

Shutterstock

They set up lemonade stands.

In Midway, Georgia, three little girls opened a lemonade stand to earn money to go to a water park. Police said they needed a business license, a peddler’s permit and a food permit. So long, girls. Bye-bye water park.

Four-year-old Abigail Krstinger of Coralville, Iowa had her lemonade stand squeezed 30 minutes after it had opened. Busted.

Similar scenes played out in Overton, Texas; Batavia, New York; Dunedin, Florida; Troy, Illinois; Queens, New York; Reno, Nevada; Philadelphia; Miami Beach; St. Louis, Las Cruces, New Mexico and are still playing out today.

Some kids have been told they need permits ranging from $75 to $1500. Others have been told they need proof the lemonade was made in a commercial kitchen inspected by the health department.

Even the rich and famous have gotten into sticky situations. Jerry Seinfeld’s son’s lemonade stand was shut down in the Hamptons. He was raising money for charity.

There are marvelous lessons learned at a lemonade stand—how to organize and plan an event, how to hustle, how to greet customers, how to pitch a product, how to count change, how to figure profits against costs and how to keep ice from melting.

Lemonade stands aren’t usually big money makers, even when mom throws in the lemonade, plastic cups, ice and sign supplies at no cost. But they give kids their first taste of the American Dream. It’s their first experience linking work with financial reward.

It’s unthinkable that the red tape of bureaucracy can choke out young entrepreneurs’ first foray into business. The standard line is that shutting the stands down is for the public good.

Balderdash.

Many of the lemonade stands are phoned in by cranky neighbors and sourpusses. In other cases, commercial vendors who feel threatened by kids selling lemonade for 25 cents a cup lodge complaints.

I guess they simply forgot what it’s like to be a kid, what it’s like to dream.

Now, Country Time Lemonade, in a genius marketing move, is offering Legal-Ade, support and financial reimbursement up to $300 to any child whose lemonade stand is threatened.

Today’s children and tomorrow’s entrepreneurs learn yet another lesson in business: When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. When your lemonade stand gets busted, make a call to Legal-Ade.

It’s the new American way.

 

The pocket dial, the purse dial and the toddler dial

The top two inadvertent cell phone calls are the pocket dial and the purse dial. I’d like to add a third – the I’m carrying-in-groceries-and-my-phone-is-under-my-chin dial. I’ve called a neighbor so many times while carrying in groceries it’s a wonder she doesn’t ask me to take her out of my phone—or stop going to the store so often.

Recently, we have been recipients of the toddler dial. In some ways, the toddler dial is a throwback to the old heavy-breathing land line calls.

I answer the phone and there’s nothing but heavy breathing on the other end, the sort of heavy breathing that happens when you’re a toddler with a cold and no ability or interest in blowing your own nose.

“Hello, Sweetie. Did you mean to call Grandma? Grandma loves when you call!”

Sweetie doesn’t have much to say. He’s just breathing.

“Hello? Sweetie? Say something.”

Sweetie giggles then burst into maniacal laughing.

Why not? The kid has got ‘em now—he’s in possession of his dad’s cell phone, pushing people on speed dial, listening to adults shout, “Hello? Hello? Hello?” Meanwhile, the grown-ups who birthed him, parent him and tell him when he has to go to bed, when he can get up, what he can eat and when he needs to go potty, don’t have a clue what he’s up to. Score one for the toddler.

Then comes a clunk, thud and muffled clatter as the phone hits the floor, most likely disappearing into a mound of plastic dinosaurs. Maybe they’ll find the phone when someone needs a T. rex.

Sweetie calls back and breathes some more.

“I like talking to you, Sweetie, but Grandma is busy,” I say. “Why don’t you take the phone to Daddy?”

Cute kid. I hang up.

Sweetie calls again.

One toddler dial is cute, two toddler dials are fine, but three toddler dials border on telemarketing.

“Take the phone to your daddy. NOW!”

The toddler dial is on a par with the mother of a toddler calling you about something and abruptly screaming, “Noooooo! I have to go!” and hanging up.

You hope it’s not a broken bone or involves a lot of bleeding. You don’t exactly go on about business as usual because you’re wondering if a little one is on the way to the ER. You’d call back but maybe the momma is still on the phone with 911. Maybe she’s driving the kid to the hospital herself.

She finally calls back and says it was “nothing.” Someone dumped one of those half-ton size bags of Veggie Straws on the floor. “Nothing” just took six months off my life.

I decide to call Sweetie back, hoping to speak to someone in charge. No answer. Clearly, Sweetie is still in charge and now screening calls from irritable Grandma.

Later that evening my daughter-in-law calls and says, “I see we missed a couple of calls from you earlier. Everything OK?”

“Great,” I say. “Just wanted to make sure all of you were still alive and breathing.”

 

Seriously, they think laundry is fun

Why is it that when work has an element of joy it isn’t work at all, but when you remove the joy, the same work that was once a delight becomes a chore?

Take laundry. Please.

There are three grands in the playhouse in the backyard when one of them announces they have spilled on the tablecloth.

She had a vested interest in the tablecloth; she helped sew it. They can all sew a straight line, which means they are now on a skill level with their grandma.

“Can I wash this?”

“You want to do laundry?”

The concept is foreign to me.

“Yes, the old way.”

“You mean a top-load machine?”

“No.”

“You mean a wringer washer?”

A blank stare.

“The old way. Like on the prairie.”

I returned from the house with an old washboard that hangs over the washer and dryer.

She is delighted. Thrilled. Ecstatic. Who doesn’t jump up and down at the prospect of scrubbing something out by hand with a tub of cold sudsy water and an old washboard?

So, there she is going to town with the tablecloth and the washboard, having a wonderful time, and I am having a wonderful time sitting in the shade watching her work. That’s probably one of my favorite elements of work – watching someone else on task.

My very favorite element of work is listening to someone else vacuum. Music to my soul.

There’s a pattern here, isn’t there?

She finishes the tablecloth and announces her dress needs washing. She dashes to the house to put on some old clothes from the “emergency” drawer and begins washing her dress.

Her sister announces that her dress needs washing, too.

The desire to work has now grown contagious. If only we could package and market this fervor.

Another sister announces she wants to wash something the old way, but must be in costume. She dashes inside and returns wearing a long dress, a straw hat and an apron that belongs to Raggedy Ann.

They have all had turns at the washboard and announce they need to dry their wet things.

“Just throw them over the chairs on the patio,” I say.

“Don’t you have rope and those pincher things?”

Isn’t that how it goes? You sanction cutting corners and someone wants to go for authenticity.

We string the rope from one end of the hammock frame to another and voila, a portable clothesline.

Their dripping wet articles flap in the breeze and they push the hammock around the yard to follow the sun.

Later that night I retrieve their things from the clothesline. The small tablecloth and little dresses are stiff, as are most things that dry in the wind.

At 10 p.m., I push a few buttons on the washing machine and toss their tiny things in with a load of towels.

It’s not a chore; it’s a delight.

Living pale in the Age of Bronze

We are approaching the most dreaded season of the year—Summer. Many people will be walking about showing off golden brown tans that scream, “I swim, I golf, I go boating, I play tennis!”

I will be walking about, my usual pasty white self, a skin tone that screams, “I stay inside and read books all summer!”

I don’t stay inside and read books all summer, it’s just that I’m one of those people who don’t tan. I’m naturally pale. Very pale. I’m so pale I nearly glow in the dark.

On the upside, no one in the family ever needs to hunt for a flashlight. Someone will just say, “Hey, Mom, show a little leg; I dropped my car keys.”


Can’t find something in the back of your closet? Call me. I can wave my arms around and you’ll find things you forgot you owned.

Naturally, every year I think this might be the year I spend a few hours outside and inexplicably develop a lovely golden brown tan. Of course, I don’t. So then I think maybe this is the year there’s a product that will give me a natural-looking golden brown tan.

I’m a marketer’s dream when it comes to self-tanning products. I first tried one when I was a girl of about 15. The advertisement promised it would turn my anemic-looking skin into a beautiful bronze and make me vastly more popular at the ocean’s shore. That was impressive, especially considering that the nearest ocean shore was 1,000 miles away.

I figured if one coat would make me bronze, two coats would make me very bronze. I slathered on three for good measure.

The next morning, I awoke and found that the lotion had indeed delivered results. I looked like a human carrot.

My mother screamed at the sight of me and rushed for her medical book.

I gave up on self-tanning lotions until about a decade ago. There was a new product, a paper towel of sorts, saturated with a lotion that would turn your skin a beautiful golden brown. The instructions said to apply it with circular motions. I woke the next day with circles on my face and arms that made me look like a leopard.

The next year, I tried a foam that said to apply it in vertical motions. For six days I walked around with stripes on my legs and arms that looked like a zebra.

Someone gave me a gift certificate for a spray tan a few years ago. It left me golden brown with a just a hint of orange, but had an unpleasant odor to it. Everywhere I went people asked, “What smells?”

I’m finished trying to be someone I’m not. I have finally made peace with being pale in the Age of Bronze.

As a matter of fact, our local symphony does outdoor concerts every summer. I’m thinking of volunteering as an usher.

Six words from the Class of 1928

The husband came across the program from my father-in-law’s high school graduation, 90 years ago. It was the Class of 1928 and their class motto was “Build for Character, Not for Fame.”

I’m pretty sure we’ve done a full reverse on that one.

We put an exceedingly high premium on fame these days. To paraphrase the late historian Daniel Boorstin, we have people who are famous for simply being famous. They haven’t done anything particularly noteworthy, but they do take marvelous selfies.

We are all wooed by the allure of fame these days. The varied possibilities of fame are the opioids of social media— follow me, friend me, like me, share my post, retweet my tweet. We are nearly desperate for fame.

A friend who pastors a church in the inner-city described a street brawl in front of his family’s home one evening. It was a group of mostly women, some with children in tow. The police said it would be a little while before they could get there, so in the meantime, our friend began taking a video. Usually when a mob sees someone pull out a cell phone, they disburse because they know they can be identified. Not this time. This time a brawler momentarily broke from the mob and asked our friend if he’d send him the video.

The man confused fame with infamy. It is often a fine line between the two.

“Build for Character, Not for Fame,” is based on the assumption that one is looking up and ahead. That’s an encouraging thought, especially today, when most of us have our heads down, crooked over screens. Looking ahead and building for character takes thought and intentionality.

One can be intentional in building for fame as well, but the components of fame are often circumstantial. Fame relies heavily on the right timing, right externals, right connections and cultivating a base of fans and supporters.

Character is rarely circumstantial and not subject to the whims of others. Character is built with self-discipline, a willingness to learn from difficulties and humility. Character grows internally and needs no applause.

Fame depends on people looking. Character is who you are when no one is looking.

Fame is often laced with an inherent jealousy, a constant, low-grade anxiety that the clock is ticking, fear that someone better able to please the crowd is closing in from behind.

Character is marked by contentment and generosity. There is satisfaction that comes with the reward of accomplishment, but at the same time good character willingly holds the door for others also hoping to achieve.

This commencement season, speakers will tell new graduates to get out there and build a better world.

The best way to build a better world is to build character, the kind that runs deep and can carry you through life’s storms. Build character with prudence, courage, justice and fortitude. Build character by respecting yourself and respecting others, because we have all been made in the image of God. Build character with faith, hope and love.

Build for character and you will build a better world.

Momma’s not far from the heart

She’s tiny for 2 years old, on the petite side with delicate features and a voice like the whisper of a summer breeze.

She’s tiny but tough. You have to be when you’re the youngest of four.

Mom and Dad are gone today. They left while she was sleeping, just after midnight. They’ve gone to the hospital for the delivery of baby No. 5.

The family lives on the top floor of a Chicago Greystone more than 100 years old. The old house has huge windows with beautiful wood molding and ledges so wide an adult can sit on them.

She is curled up in one of the windows. She gingerly climbed over the radiator, which never gets more than a middling sort of warm, took a seat on a window ledge and wrapped her little arms around her little legs, which are pulled up to her chin.

She’s watching the action on the street below—cars passing, motorists parking, people walking briskly with morning coffee in one hand and cell phones in the other. Delivery trucks zip by and a mail carrier pushes his canvas-like wheelbarrow along the sidewalk.

Meanwhile, her next-in-line brother has gotten out a microscope. He’s peering at slides, alternating looking with his right eye, squinting with his left, looking with his left, squinting with his right.

Her next older brother is tinkering with squishy circuits, a conductive play dough in which he arranges electrical circuits and fires up tiny lightbulbs.

Her big sister just brought up a load of a laundry from the cellar, three flights of rickety stairs down. Now she’s doing a word search, working on earning a paleontologist badge from the National Parks Service.

Of course, it’s not nearly as tranquil as it sounds. Skirmishes intermittently erupt and they all take turns testing Grandma and Grandpa’s limits and response times. All except the little one.

Late afternoon, they are lined up on the sofa watching an animal show. From a distance it looks like the little one’s eyes are glistening. Tears are welling.

I scoop her up and ask what’s wrong. She looks in my eyes with a stiff upper lip and whispers, “Momma.”

Tears tumble down her soft cheeks.

I hold her and soon she’s fine.

After dinner, she climbs into the window again. The length of the street is ablaze with headlights, taillights, stoplights and streetlights.


But it’s not the dazzling lights holding her gaze. She’s looking hard at each car, each passerby. She’s looking for Momma.

When I pick her up to put her to bed, she lays her head on my shoulder, whispers “Momma,” and starts to sob. Tears soak my neck.

I rock her awhile and sing a lullaby over and over. I lie down next to her, my arm wrapped around her small body. When she’s finally asleep, I pull my arm away and wrap her sister’s arm around her.

She’ll be at the window again in the morning, looking for the one who makes her feel completely safe and protected, the one who makes her eyes dance and her entire being shine.

Oh, that every child would know the warmth and strength of a loving momma.