Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Burning Question

By Bruce VanWyngarden and Jim Hanas

JUNE 8, 1998: 

POINT

It’s the Heat…
Forget the wet – humidity is nothing without the heat.

by Bruce VanWyngarden

“It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.”
I’ve heard this phrase my entire life – in Pittsburgh, in Washington, D.C., in Missouri, in Memphis, even in Montreal, for heaven’s sakes. It transcends geography. It’s ingrained in our consciousness. It’s as much a part of summer as lemonade and mosquitoes and big, stupid movies. I heard someone say it again just the other day. Two women were walking through the door of a downtown office building, coming in out of the noonday sun. One remarked, accurately, “My God, it’s hot out there.” To which the other, wiping her brow, responded: “It’s not so much the heat; it’s the darn humidity!” To which I wanted to say: “No, you idiot, it is the heat!”

I refrained then. I won’t now. It seems so obvious I shouldn’t even have to say it, but I will: People, once and for all, it is not the humidity that makes the Memphis summer so unendurable; it’s the suffocating, omnipresent, sidewalk-fried-egg heat!

How this inane, “It’s not the heat...” phrase survives as some sort of folk wisdom, even among those who should know better, I’ll never understand. It’s basic physics: Humidity is just water molecules in the air – moisture. Do you dread having to walk out of your cool house into the morning dew? Does a foggy night make you want to slip on a sundress and head for the veranda? Does a gentle spring mist make you crank your car’s AC to stun? I suspect not. That’s because humidity – moisture – cannot make you hot! It can only make you moist – not necessarily a bad thing, I might add.

Heat, on the other hand, is always heat – with or without moisture. It is a primal force. Heat turns the inside of your sun-baked car into a thigh-scalding, dog-killing, Easy-Bake Oven. Heat transforms solid asphalt into bubbling black lava goo. Heat fries beautiful, lush lawns into crispy brown shredded wheat. Heatstroke can kill you.

Humidity-stroke? Don’t make me laugh. Humidity is but a lagniappe, parsley on the plate. It’s there sometimes, and it may make you sweat a little more, but so what? I’ll say it again: It’s the heat that makes you hot.

Another bit of silliness you’ll hear – and a corollary of “It’s not the heat...” – is when someone recounts their trip to, say, Arizona. “Yup,” they’ll intone, with all seriousness, “it was 106 degrees, but it wasn’t bad, because it was a dry heat.” Oh, please. One hundred and six degrees will roast your butt, no matter how little humidity is in the air. Don’t believe me? Then drive on out to delightfully arid Tucson this August. Spend a couple of days, then tell me you wouldn’t rather be in that moist hellhole Seattle.

Think of it this way: If you remove the humidity from a steam room, you’ve still got a sauna. Both rooms will make you sweat if they’re hot. Remove the heat from either room and you’re left with, well, two little rooms with uncomfortable seating. Nothing oppressive about that, unless you’re a compulsive decorator.

Humidity is but an annoyance, a petty irritant. Humidity’s biggest threat is that it will make you damp. If it were dangerous, the Air Force would have developed a humidity-seeking missile.

But heat, ah, heat engages the big emotions – fear, anger, hunger, lust. Heat warms the soul, it melts the heart. Heat turns you on. Heat cooks, it burns. It sautes. It boils. It stirs our language, our music, our culture. Mark McGwire is a hot hitter; get in trouble with your boss and you’ll feel the heat; make a bad decision and you’ll get burned.

Heat is everywhere. Heat moves the planet.

Imagine Martha Reeves and the Vandellas singing, “Like a Humidity Wave.” Kind of hard to dance to, eh? It’s indisputable; you have to be hot to dance with abandon. Loose. Think salsa, lambada, mambo, calypso. Heat’s got the beat. Humidity’s got no rhythm. No soul. In fact, humidity without heat will make you chilly. You’ll shiver, feel frigid.

Finally, consider Kathleen Turner and William Hurt in Body Heat. Was it the humidity that made the big lug toss that chair through the glass door? Would any sane person say that those two were humid to trot? I think not, boy-o. It was the ever-loving heat. Alway was, always will be.

Anyone whose brain isn’t all wet knows that.


COUNTERPOINT

It’s the Humidity…
It’s scientific fact – humidity is what makes heat dangerous.

by Jim Hanas

Heat is fine. Sometimes heat gets quite hot, and we have lots of expressions like “crazy from the heat” and “like a cat on a hot tin roof” to give it its proper due. But these little sayings are nothing compared to the article of common sense that – like the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and “Free Bird” – truly holds us together, through thick and through thin, as a country and as a people: “It’s not the heat. It’s the humidity.”

Because heat is fine, but humidity is where we actually live, down here in this soggy low-cruising fog. Hot air is still air, but hot and humid air is something else entirely. It attacks the lungs and the will to live. It keeps swimsuits damp and clammy all summer long. It drives Southerners to the lethargy, hereditary despair, and alcoholism that are the hallmarks of their regional identity. It keeps bath towels moist and ripe for mildew. And when you wake up in the middle of the night in the pasty, feverish sweat of a malaria-crazed legionnaire, well, it’s not the heat that did that – it’s the humidity.

The folk wisdom about humidity lording over heat is a case where the common man’s belief turns out to be the truth. Sure, there will always be swaggering contrarians who insist that anything so widely believed must surely be false. But even the most elitist anti-democrat must blink and turn away when forced to stare into the all-illuminating sun of Undeniable Scientific Fact.

Consider this: The average June temperature in Phoenix is just under 105; in Memphis, it’s almost 90. If it’s the heat rather than the humidity, the Arizona climate should be much more oppressive than West Tennessee’s. However, the average relative humidity for June afternoons in Memphis is almost 60 percent, while in Phoenix it’s just over 10 percent. But what really matters is how it feels to the human body. In particular, what matters is how it feels to the widower next door when he cuts off his mower, squints into the sun, swabs an oily red rag over his fiery-red skull, nods over the fence and says: “Ya’ know. It’s not so much the heat, but the humidity.”

Science is on his side. The heat index is the temperature your body feels when both the heat and humidity are taken into account, and Memphis’ milder June heat but higher humidity feels hotter than Phoenix’s dry heat by half a degree, 100.5 to 100 degrees.

A half a degree ain’t much, but when humidity can close a 15-degree gap, it’s clear who’s calling the shots. Humidity trumps heat, just like the man says. Without it, heat is nothing. It’s just a laboratory concept, a benign abstraction. Humidity, on the other hand, is the catalyst that converts heat into something truly fearsome. Heat without humidity is like an empty threat; perhaps like death, but without the sting. A 100-degree June day with average humidity in Phoenix, for example, would have a 94-degree heat index and be classified, quaintly, as “extreme.” In Memphis, the same temperature would produce a heat index of 129 degrees, and would be classified not just as “extreme” or even “hazardous,” but as downright “dangerous.”

Not only that, but humidity renders the body defenseless against its hateful processes by slowing evaporation, which is how sweating is supposed to cool you down. That’s why you can sweat through several wardrobes in the course of a Memphis summer and never get any relief, leaving you cranky and desperate, swerving through traffic and red lights as your eyes are flooded and your vision obscured by run-away perspiration that doesn’t have any place else to go.

Humidity is evil like that. It’s a disease whose cure only makes matters worse. It’s a cruel joke and an affront to the proper order of things, an unnatural force that turns the law against itself. In short, it is wrong.

Arizonans no doubt think this is funny, with their little boom towns and their unsticky flesh and their undetectable humidity that actually makes the apparent temperature drop. That’s just the kind of people you’d expect to go around thinking it’s the heat rather than the humidity.

But we know. They wouldn’t last a week.


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