In Praise of Fresh Air

Remembering the joys of pane-free days

Audio Version

One day recently, the temperature here in Washington was unseasonably, gloriously mild. My first thought was that this whole global warming thing might not be so bad after all—but I quickly banished that bit of heresy from my mind and moved on to my second thought: I believe I'll open a ­window.

You might as well sit back and get comfortable, kiddies; the old man is going to reminisce a little. There was a time when opening or closing a window was an unquestioned part of the daily routine. Feeling warm? Open the window. Is the rain making puddles on the floor? Close the window. Simple as that. Not exactly a high-tech approach to climate control, but effective nonetheless.

Then everything changed. Someone—architects or mad scientists, manufacturers of HVAC systems or suppliers of Freon—decided that operable windows were bad or, worse, old-fashioned. It's a Brave New World, they proclaimed, and we can't have all this fresh air flooding into the pristine environments we've created! So out came the hammers and nails and caulk guns, and before you could say, "Is it really stuffy in here?" opening your office window became anachronistic, like checking to make sure there was plenty of ink in the mimeograph machine.

It was a complete turnaround from the heyday of the Romantic movement. Back then, as painters and poets and composers celebrated the glories of Nature and urged everyone to go out and enjoy the fresh air and scenery, the architectural barriers between "indoors" and "outdoors" began to fall. Nowadays, by contrast, we scurry from air-conditioned cars to hermetically sealed buildings, marking seasonal changes by flipping the thermostat from HEAT to A/C and back again. I can't shake the feeling that we're missing something. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not enamored of perspiration, and I realize that in many parts of the country, summertime heat can flatten you like a steamroller. But no matter where you live, a really nice day is sure to come around once in a while, and when that happens, you want to take full advantage of it. 

On this issue, there's a brief but informative article about taking care of the windows in an older house. It's full of common-sense advice—keep the window frames painted, don't give in to sales pitches about the "benefits" of replacing sound wooden frames with new ones made of vinyl or metal or compressed diamond dust, that sort of thing—but I'd like to add another important point: Let your windows do the work they were meant to do. Fling up the sash. Push out the casement. Crank open the louvers. It's an easy, no-cost, green thing to do—saves energy, doesn't consume dwindling resources, you know the drill—and what's more, it can offer some very nice sensory benefits as well.

Let me illustrate by sharing a memory that's stuck in my head: I'm about 10 years old, and I'm just waking up on a summer morning. It's going to be a hot day—summer days are almost always hot in West Texas—but right now it's cool. I know this because there's an open window right beside my bed, and there's a breeze blowing on my face, fresh and insistent, freighted with the smell of fresh-cut grass and the sound of cicadas, the sort of breeze I might have been tempted to describe as heavenly if that particular adjective had been part of my 10-year-old vocabulary.

Of all the mind pictures I've accumulated over the years, why has this one—a memory of a nonevent, really—remained so vivid and stayed with me for so long? I think it's because the breeze through that open window created an all-too-rare near-perfect moment.

Now I ask you: Has an air-conditioner ever done that for you? I didn't think so.                

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