Thursday, March 28, 2013

No. 434 – What’s Going On

Performer: Marvin Gaye
Songwriters: Al Cleveland, Marvin Gaye, Renaldo Benson
Original Release: Single, What’s Going On
Year: 1971
Definitive Version: none

Shortly after I started at Harbor Country News and Jim and I began our friendship in 1988, he made me a tape of What’s Going On. I had noticed it on a list of great albums in Rolling Stone but didn’t know anything about it. When I finally heard it, it hit me at precisely the right time.

As I mentioned, I had a political awakening at Northwestern and quickly became attuned to liberal causes. To me, the biggest was the environment, because if we messed that up to the point where we can’t live any more, everything else is secondary.

In 1988, I became particularly concerned about the ozone hole that had just formed over Antarctica. It made me aware how fragile we all were and how things, such as the ozone layer that protects us from the sun’s radiation, can be so easily taken for granted.

Something had to be done, but one person could do only so much. I decided how I could make at least a minimal contribution was to have no air conditioner in my apartment. AC coolant generated chlorofluorocarbons, which eat up the ozone layer. Even one fewer air conditioner, I thought, would be beneficial.

The problem was I picked about the worst summer possible to make such a principled stand. I don’t know where you were that year, but southwestern Michigan went through a huge drought and heat wave pretty much from June to September. It got to be so when a quick afternoon shower struck in August, we covered it in the Harbor Country News with pictures on the front page.

The weather was bad enough. What was worse was my apartment. My apartment had six windows in it—one in the kitchen, one in the bedroom and four in the living room, three of which formed something like a bay window without the seating. Two of the bay windows—maybe five feet apart—were the only windows that opened.

I hadn’t realized this until long after I moved in, because, well, who thinks about open windows in January? When the temperature began to rise, and I realized I couldn’t open all the windows, I knew I was in trouble. How was I supposed to get a cross breeze going with my fan? The answer became apparent: I couldn’t.

That summer was brutal. As June rolled into July, I couldn’t sleep in my bed, because it was too hot, even if I pulled the fan out of the window and aimed it at my face. Because there was no circulation, the hot air that built up in my apartment never could escape.

It got so I’d wake up in the middle of the night, sweating in my bed, and trudge off to the bathroom. I’d fill the tub with cold water and sit in it to cool down. As soon as I felt as though I were falling asleep, I’d go back to bed. A couple of times I had to repeat the procedure in a single night.

When Melanie visited, we slept in the living room for the space anyway. It was better, although not much. I’d just pull off the comforter, and we’d sleep on top of that. After she left, I just started to stay out there.

At the time, Harbor Country News had an ancillary sales office around the side in the same building in which I lived. It had no computer, so I had no reason to work there, which would have been nice, but it had AC. One night in August, I finally had enough and dragged my comforter and pillow down there and set up behind one of the desks in the office. I set an alarm, so I was long gone before anyone else showed up, but at least I got a good night’s sleep.

And I learned an important lesson that summer: Principles require sacrifice. I never did get a room AC until, as I mentioned, last year. But I damn well made sure from then on that I always had an apartment that had windows that opened.

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