My dampness

I was born and spent my early years in Houston, and I lived there again in several stretches as an adult, so I know a thing or two about humidity. I know what it’s like to wear dry clothing before opening the front door and to be wet when entering the car. I know what it’s like to glisten like Bruce Willis does after chase scenes, except without chasing anyone. I know what it’s like to go around with a thin exoskeleton of grime, even when I’ve recently bathed.

In the summer of 1990 I was selling suits at a Houston department store. The phone rang one morning and a man with a heavy German accent asked if we had any lightweight suits in a 56 Long. That is a very large suit size — we’re talking 1970s Orson Welles large — and beyond the range of most department store stock. I told the caller apologetically that we did not have suits that large and gave him the number of a big-and-tall store nearby. The caller zanked me.

It occurred to me that I had just spoken to someone on the staff of German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was in town for the G7 economic summit hosted by then-president George H.W. Bush. It might very well have been the chancellor himself who called, but I’ll likely never know because he died last year, not that we were likely to encounter each other anyway. Chancellor Kohl was a husky fellow, and I could imagine someone coming from northern Europe, as he did, being caught off guard by Houston weather.

I looked it up just now, and on July 9, 1990, the summit’s first day, Houston’s high temperature was 93 degrees and the humidity was 87 percent. The outdoor welcome party the night before, thrown by the U.S. president at Rice University, featured armadillo races and cacti made of Styrofoam. One can easily imagine Herr Kohl zinking, “Ach! I must find a lighter suit!” while watching armadillos run about in the soppy Houston air. The armadillos probably weren’t any too pleased about the situation, either.

But for all my experience with the grotesqueness of Houston’s climate, and as much as I might have thought in 2014 that I knew what there was to know about humidity, I was wrong. I learned just how wrong I was after I moved to southwest Mississippi in 2015.

One of the situations in which baldness is a virtue is when you’re in humidity. I can’t imagine going around in Mississippi between March and November with the equivalent of a coonskin cap on my head.

I haven’t really cared to know more about humidity, but if I am to remain the reliable source of solid scientific knowledge on which so many of my readers depend, then it made sense to go to the trouble of broadening my own knowledge.

An internet search led me to an article on the PBS News Hour website called “8 things you didn’t know about humidity.” All those lower-case words startled me, considering the august reputation of that particular news show, but I read on.

I learned that the highest recorded dew point temperature is 95, and it happened in Saudi Arabia. I have never gotten my head around what a dew point is — don’t write; I don’t care — but the highest was in Saudi Arabia. I also learned that New York stinks in the summer because we humans detect smells better in damp environments. Surely other cities stink in the summer for the same reason, but isn’t it funny that we never hear choruses of, “It sure does stink in Harrisburg in the summer!”

News Hour also claims that “Humidity brought us tonal language,” but I have nothing to add there because I didn’t read that part of the article because it didn’t sound very interesting. What was interesting was the next part.

When it comes to wet heat in the insect world, it’s the little guy that thrives. Goggy Davidowitz, an entomologist at the University of Arizona explains that smaller bugs are more likely to dehydrate because they have a larger surface area relative to their whole body size. Because most bugs are small, and humidity increases survivorship, insects seek moist climates, Davidowitz said.

Setting aside momentarily the fact that there is in the world an otherwise serious-sounding person named “Goggy,” as well as the aggravatingly absent comma after “Arizona,” I was disturbed to realize that I live in Bug Heaven. As if the humidity itself weren’t torment enough, Mississippi is a literal breeding ground for creatures whose sole purpose in life is to annoy me.

To be clear, it is only mosquitos and roaches that I hate. But that doesn’t mean I’m exactly in love with June Bugs, gnats and the little moths that fly into your mouth at dusk when you want to gulp only some Chardonnay that came out of a box.

I might need to rethink Mississippi.

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