Afterthoughts: Summertime Blues
The heat, my god, the heat!
Photo: Michael Keany
This summer has been the worst. Heatwise, I mean. It’s been week after week, month after month, of sticky, humid, relentless, oppressive heat, with scarcely a tradewind to offer any relief. At this point, I’m feeling permanently wilted.
It’s partly my fault. I recently took a two-week vacation—my first real break from work in four years. I had no travel plans lined up, but, with my time-off hours maxed out, I had to do something, or risk losing them. So I took the days, knowing that I might end up lounging at home watching Netflix for two weeks. Which, c’mon, sounds pretty awesome, right?
It was not. After a decade of working regular 8-to-5 hours in a nice, air-conditioned office, I had forgotten that Honolulu gets hot in the middle of the day. This year—really, really hot.
Now, my apartment has never had air conditioning. I suppose I inherited a bit of my mom’s mindset when it comes to ventilating a room: Open up all the windows, get a good cross breeze going, you’ll be fine.
For years, that attitude, plus a sturdy portable fan or two, has gotten me through the summer months without too much grief. What I was experiencing now, though, was not fine. Not fine at all. Forced onto my front lānai by the saunalike conditions inside, I stared accusingly at the cloudless sky and the normally cool-giving Ko‘olau Range. Where were the tradewinds?
Maybe global climate change has finally showed up on Hawai‘i’s doorstep for real. Maybe I’m getting old and my internal thermostat is crapping out, leaving me sweaty and miserable in formerly comfortable situations. Or maybe it’s both of those things at once, which would mean I’m really screwed.
In any case, it took only a few brutal days, and a few oppressive, sleepless nights, before I broke down and bought my first-ever window air-conditioning unit. It was a small one—my stoic pride wouldn’t let me get too comfortable—but the icy breeze suddenly streaming into my bedroom felt like a modern miracle. My vacation was saved!
So, OK, I realize my situation was pretty manini. Oh, the poor writer got a wittle hot on his vacay, did he? But I’ve got newfound empathy for those people who don’t have the luxury of working in central air conditioning.
Have you been to Fisher Hawai‘i lately, for art tools or school supplies or whatever? That warehouse is crazy hot. All the employees have fans trained on them at all times, but it doesn’t look like it’s helping. They don’t get a reprieve after two weeks of hell.
My heart really goes out, though, to the students and teachers stuck in the more than 200 Hawai‘i public schools with no central AC. We’ve all been reading about this issue for years—the 90-plus-degree classrooms, the huge sapping effect of heat on kids’ productivity and attention spans—but, until you personally spend an entire day perspiring in an oven of a room, it’s hard to truly understand what these students and teachers are enduring. I know I’ve been a bit glib about it in the past.
Every summer, the cry for air conditioning goes out, and every summer, the Hawai‘i state Department of Education reminds us it would be basically impossible to install AC units in every classroom. ($1.7 billion is the price tag currently quoted by the DOE’s “heat abatement program” page on hawaiipublicschools.org.) And the suffering continues.
To be fair, smaller, individual steps are being taken, both by the DOE and private citizens. One recent crowdfunding effort by students—cleverly named Fahrenheit 73, the supposed optimal temperature for learning—claimed success in May after raising more than $20,000. That impressive chunk of cash is going to cool down … one single portable classroom at Campbell High School.
I know the DOE operates under a mountain of red tape, but there must be some way to cool a classroom more cheaply than that. Window units start at $150 apiece at Lowe’s—obviously they’re no match for a properly insulated, professionally installed, full HVAC system, but I bet they’d offer some much-needed relief to our students. Photovoltaic systems are coming down in price, too—could private local companies pitch in to subsidize the initial cost of installation for schools in their neighborhood? Or perhaps state lawmakers would loosen the education-budget purse strings after spending a day in a West Side classroom. These are oversimplified suggestions, sure, but it’s clear by now that Hawai‘i is only going to get hotter—it’s time to start getting creative.