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30 September 2021 19:06 

Titles are hard.

Come up with something and in your head it sounds great. See it written down, and it’s weak at best, and subsequent ideas are even worse. A title should be short (Augustus), capture something about the topic (Twelve Angry Men), be original (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), maybe funny (Green Eggs and Ham), or ironic (A Modest Proposal). Sometimes the title is all you really need: It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It — no need to even buy the book, thanks for the laugh, yes, we do that to ourselves all the time, don’t we?

I’ve used movie titles before, and was thinking of using Heat, after the excellent Michael Mann movie, but while the title itself is close to what I am writing about close, the vernacular use of the word by DeNiro doesn’t suite the theme of this essay. Maybe if I start casing joints, see, then I can use Heat. Fuggetaboutit!1I’m aware that this last is from … Continue reading

The first title of this essay was ‘Sailing the Heat Wave’, but that was flawed. You don’t really sail waves, at least those that break on shore (unless you are about to shipwrecked): you ride waves, you surf waves, you dive through waves, you take a wave on the head. And like all waves, heat waves eventually break. If you are referring to waves (swells, really) out to sea, you need a preposition: sail on the waves or sail over the waves or if reaching for the poetic dramatic, cutting through the waves.

It’s like flying hot hair balloons. I suppose hot air balloons are flown by virtue of their vertical movement, but really the whole affair seems closer to sailing, if you were to sail in a boat with no tiller and are stuck with the same sail size, regardless of wind conditions. That said, I think tourist brochures in Napa Valley or Santa Fe usually advertise for a hot air balloon ride, where you are just a passive, captive passenger (redundant), at the mercy of nature. Hot air balloon drifting seems like the best way to describe what really happens.

So you do your best, hope the title is not so bad as to drive the reader/victim away.

And none of this has to do with the ocean or hot air balloons. Or camera settings—that’s just me trying to be clever. No talk about kevlar sails, wave amplitude, or shutter speed; this is about something really mundane: trying to keep our house in Montpellier cool.

Maybe the problems with titles are indicative of problems with the narrative: Opening and closing shutters with your host, Blake Elder.



Although my family lived in Kansas, Texas, and Washington state before moving there, it’s the climate of Virginia, imprinted starting age five, that is the baseline against which all future experiences are compared. Virginia, classified as a humid subtropical climate (Köppen system), was hot in the summer, and very humid. An early memory is in our first house, in a newly built neighborhood off Telegraph Road: at the end of a summer day, laying flat on the kitchen floor, partially over the rectangular, louvered floor vent, absorbing the cool dry air coming out. It had been another hot humid summer day, but back then I didn’t know any different. I can still hear the whir and whine of the central air conditioner apparatus on a concrete pad in the back yard.

Winters were no better. Another memory is after a cold, snowy day, not only cold but wet, a wet that penetrated all layers of clothing technology, which back then seemed to be only cotton and wool. After a day of sledding or shoveling, all outer layers of clothing were taken off in the basement, wrung out, and turned inside out, then put in the dryer, unless they were too saturated and therefore too heavy for the dryer drum to turn, in which they were hung someplace until evaporation lightened them enough for the dryer.

That first Virginia home was ugly, but being newer, built in 1965, there was central air conditioning. Later we moved into an older home, prettier, built in 1924 in a place called Belle Haven; the brick facades were marred by ugly, but necessary, if less effective, window air conditioner units. In those days in Belle Haven during the summer, and even into the fall, the drill was to open up the house to fresh, cool air in the morning, then as the day progressed, evaluate what to do depending on the temperature. As often as not, soon after midday, my mother would yell out that it was time to close up the house and turn on the air conditioners. About an hour later the house cooled down2Some years after I moved away, my … Continue reading.

And that’s all I knew. I didn’t travel to many different places as far as climate was concerned: besides Virginia, I spent time in West Virginia, Delaware, Vermont, and Texas, this last a place where it’s even hotter and nearly as humid as Virginia. Texas, a place people willingly move to.

Until you leave the climate you grew up in, you can’t have any perspective, any understanding of other possibilities, other influences.


June, 1981. Matt and I arrived for a summer of work in Lander, Wyoming. Matt’s older brother, Kurt, had offered us rooms for the summer, assuming we could make it out there (we barely did in my wretched Volvo, and the return trip was even worse, but that’s another story), and assuming we could find jobs, which we did. That was my first summer as an adult in the west. It was unlike any other landscape or climate I had lived in.

A climate map of the state shows eleven different types of Köppen climate types, from ET (tundra) to BWk (cold desert); Lander itself comes in under BSk (tropical and subtropical steppe climate) category. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Type B…

designates climates in which the controlling factor on vegetation is dryness (rather than coldness). Aridity is not a matter of precipitation alone but is defined by the relationship between the precipitation input to the soil in which the plants grow and the evaporative losses3 … Continue reading.

Further, the BW designation means arid, and the k, cold. It certainly was arid; it only rained once the entire summer.

The place where we stayed was forgettable: a small, one level ranch house, no air conditioning, no special insulating construction, no fans, but it never felt uncomfortable (except when we couldn’t shower because the water truck had not come to refill the fresh water tank, a re-supply needed every three weeks). Arid, dry, was a new experience for me: no east coast wall of humidity, no thunderstorms, just a whole lot of dry. The days were hot, but at night, instead of staying nearly the same temperature as during the day, it cooled down enough that I had to be all the way in my sleeping bag if I slept with the windows open, which I always did.

More than the weather and climate, the panoramas and vistas were new to me: you could see for miles in all directions, and the scale was stunning. Wallace Stegner captured the nicely the need to adjust expectations coming East to West:

You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale.4Wallace Stegner, “Thoughts in a Dry … Continue reading

I wouldn’t call the scale inhuman — that’s a bit pessimistic. But to those of us raised with the deciduous forests and  small mountain horizons of the East, it did take some getting used to: you could see forever in all directions.

I was outside everyday, building fences, stacking hay bales, and other manual labor chores on the ranch of the town veterinarian. It was hot. I didn’t mind. The heat seemed to sharpen the smell of things: dirt, sagebrush, after a while I swear I could smell water.


After that summer, I didn’t return West until 1985, when I moved to the western edge of the continent.

California, specifically the San Francisco Bay Area, was again an entirely new climate, unlike anything I had experienced. The Köppen classification is Csb: dry subtropical or Mediterranean5The full chart of the Köppen … Continue reading. But really, it’s more simply and clearly described as having two seasons: a cool, rainy season from November until May, then a hot dry rainy from late spring until the late fall.

In the Bay Area it never got cold, not cold like the time in Vermont where for about two weeks it never got warmer than 10°F, and dropped down to minus something every night. Around the Bay Area once in a while there was a dusting snow on the peaks circling the bay, a funny contrast of white on green (back East everything was dead brown when the snow came). When I first moved there, I could go running in the coldest of February rain storms, without any sweats or rain gear. There was no winter as I had known and understood the term, instead there was just this period of shorter days, cooler weather, and rain.

In her excellent 1997 graduation speech, Mary Schmich advises the young and hopeful to, among other things:

Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you too soft.6 … Continue reading

She was quite right. It was unbelievably pleasant in northern California, a climatic oddity, where you don’t need snow chains, a sump pump in your basement, insect repellent or even window screens. How long had this been going on and why hadn’t I heard about it sooner?

Of course, some people, that’s all they had ever known.

True story: one winter I had been back East for several weeks over the Christmas holidays; it was quite cold when I was there. Upon return to the Bay Area, I think just before the new year, I joined Ron, Eugene, and another friend whom we’ll call Tony, for an epic day of golfing: in the morning at Aptos Seascape, and in the afternoon we played at DeLaveaga. Before leaving I checked out the weather, and opted for shorts (I did have a sweater on, but soon after we started playing, that came off). I think Eugene also wore for shorts, and Ron, who knows what he’s doing on the golf course, probably wore just the right thing.

Tony wore jeans, what looked like a few layers of sweaters, maybe also a ushanka. But there was more. Around the fifth or sixth hole, Tony ducked behind a tree to remove the jeans, then the long underwear he was wearing under his jeans. Tony’s technically a Canadian, but has lived in California for most of his life.

The Bay Area dry season was equally mild, and like Wyoming, or maybe Arrakis7Frank Herbert’s Dune., there was no rain for months on end. Although the days were warm, a night a marine layer moved in from the Pacific, and for at least those living on the peninsula, it cooled down at night.

Given this mild climate, homes in the Bay Area were built without air conditioning, were not well insulated, and certainly there were no shutters that closed to keep out the summer sun. There were no harsh seasons to protect against: fireplaces were decorative, no need for some sort of efficient Vermont Castings wood stove, no radiant floor heat, no R-10,000 insulation,

But once in a while there were hot spells, no evening marine layer to bring relief. For a time I lived alone in a caretaker’s cottage on an estate in Los Altos Hills, right near where Page Mill Road meets Moody Road. On those evenings, I would take the coldest shower I could stand, not dry off, and go to bed with the fan directly on me. The property owner, Perico, who was from Spain, advised me to wait until after sunset, then spray water on the stone driveway, thereby releasing the heat captured during the day, and cooling things off, maybe.

Later, when we were all living in San Carlos, when a heat wave came, softened by my many years in California, that first hot night I went to Costco, not for an air conditioner, but instead for some contraption called a swamp cooler. The name is not helpful: there’s nothing really positive that’s associated with the word swamp, and really, the people who came up with the word cooler should take a page from the marketing handbook of those brands who are serious about getting things cold: Kevlinator, Frigidaire, Igloo, ColdSpot…you get the idea.

The thing was on wheels and rolled around like a bad prop from Star Trek (I think modern designs are better; my experience dates from 2005) You poured in some water, plugged it in, then turned it on. Best I can recall, the swamp cooler worked well the very first evening of operation, but that have been some combination of sublimated buyer’s remorse meeting the placebo effect: you bought this contraption, it damn well better work. Soon the thing started to smell, and it was regulated to the side yard, to be sold at the next De Anza flea market in Cupertino.


I’m often restless. Waiting for the train, I pace on the platform. Sitting in meetings, I doodle, scribble, look out the window. I fiddle with things, putter around, get up from some digital activity to sweep the floor, weed in the garden, sort the silverware. I like doing things, need to do things.

In my limited experience, sailing is a discipline and art of constant attention. In a sailboat, something always needs work, and when underway there’s always something to trim, to ease, to adjust. As the Water Rat said, it’s about messing around in boats.8Kenneth Graham’s The Wind and the … Continue reading Of course there are exceptions: during his 1895 circumnavigation in The Spray, while crossing the Indian Ocean, Joshua Slocum hardly touched the sails or tiller for over two thousand miles.9See … Continue reading

In Montpellier I put some the restlessness into controlling not the wind, but rather the heat. Instead of sails, shutters.


In all my houses in North America, there were almost always shutters, but they were sort an appendix of the body house: vestigial, non-functioning, strictly decorative. That hasn’t been the case in France.

Our first year we lived on the top floor of a Hausmann style building in Marseille. There were no shutters to close, and we had air conditioner units to keep the apartment cool. Our second home was a townhouse in a small village, La Garde, near Toulon, and while that did have shutters, the house was in an old village with narrow streets, and it was only on the upper floors that we got any direct sunlight, so here the shutters played little role in the heat abatement.

In Montpellier it’s hotter: the climate is classified as Csa: hot summer Mediterranean climate.10There is also a warm summer … Continue reading It gets hot.

We live on the upper story of a house in Montpellier. Downstairs is split into two apartments: one occupied by Florence, who recently moved in, and whose cat gets along with Loki, but not with Maki; and in the other apartment is Maud, who has a large box turtle in her garden. 

The main room—entry, living room, dining area, and kitchen— faces south, with windows on three sides, catching the sunrise, the sun’s transit across the day, then the sunset. In the summer there is ambient light until 2230. Unlike the apartment in Chur, where the mountains steal daylight, in Montpellier we get the full day’s sun. It gets hot. We have air conditioners, but we use these sparingly. Instead, as with most homes here, there are functional wooden shutters, pale blue, including a full length, folding shutter that shields the metal and glass front door.

Coming downstairs in the morning, I look left, east, maybe walk out on the terrace. On the east wall everything gets opened up: the large shutter on the front door, all the window shutters. Same for the south and west walls. I want to pull in all the morning cool and breeze that we can.

I’ll go into the back room which doubles as my office to work for a while, then come out now and there to assess and adjust as needed. Overcast? Then maybe everything stays open. Strong sun, but also windy? Then leave the windows open, but close the shutters, as there are gaps enough in the seams to let the wind through while blocking the sun. Sunny and still? Close the windows and the shutters.

Repeat as needed throughout the day.

Catherine often watches quietly, taking in much more than is apparent; she must have recently learned the term OCD, perhaps at school, and after watch me fiddling with the shutters, asked me if I was the same.

I laugh, maybe I am. I have her come over to feel the inside of the shutter: the wood is quite warm. I tell her about the houses she doesn’t remember living in, and that here, unlike in North America, are not just aesthetic, but also functional.

But the fun may be ending soon. We’re hoping to purchase a newly built home, whose modern design and use of energy efficient material eliminates the need for shutters. Now what am I going to do?

Photos by Catherine Elder.


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  1. During my one visit to La Garde, July 1-3 2015, it was HOT – Europe was in the midst of a heatwave. I distinctly remember sleeping at your townhouse, windows open, fan blowing, unable to become cool. And recall thinking that this was actually the norm for most of humanity, and thru essentially all of time. When it was hot you just dealt with it. And in an odd way that made the trip better: it felt "genuine" to be staying in a very old Mediterranean town, in a very old building, with no real means of cooling. Just like the Neanderthals and Hannibal.

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