• Otter Views: Cold Snap

    by Tom Stevens

    After the farmer’s market vendors packed up and drove away, a moon as thin as a beaten dime rose through the branches of silhouette trees. The sky was blue-black; clear and icy with stars. Overhead, Orion stretched his arms toward Monterey as if seeking its warmth.

    At the market earlier, huddled shoppers had commiserated about the cold, swapped low temperature readings, talked windshield-scraping technique. The fruit and nut vendor reported a morning low of 24 in Modesto. The seafood man just smiled as his bare hands packed chip ice around fillets and crab claws.

    Because I grow cold easily and tend to whine about it, I need to remember that cold is relative. For instance, I thought Monday evening was cold, but the seafood man looked cheerful in his icy domain. I was cowled and layered like an arctic monk, but some shoppers strolled about the market in their running shorts.

    It’s possible they weren’t cold at all. Or, they could have been using psychology. A magazine ad I saw recently featured a bearded, bare-chested man afloat in a ragged ice hole of the sort Minnesotans chop for winter fishing. With his arms resting easily on the snowy rim, he looked as relaxed as a samurai in a furo bath.

    The man in the ad is renowned in ice water immersion circles for his variation on “cogito ergo sum” – I think I am warm, therefore I am. Evidently, it’s all mental mastery. Or maybe not all. Some physical training might be necessary as well: perhaps a series of ever-longer, ever-colder immersions. Start in infancy with tepid bassinet water and slowly build up to the ice fishing hole.

    I’m too late for all that, but I do use “it could be worse” psychology. Monday’s farmer’s market, for instance, opened beneath clear blue skies on a sunny afternoon. When I started shivering, I thought about how much colder the day would seem under dark, cloudy skies with a brisk wind.

    “Or, it could be windy and dark, and then start raining,” I thought, remembering how much colder one feels when also wet. This calmed the shivering, but I still wasn’t enjoying as much apparent warmth as the people in running shorts. So I added more conditions.

    “It could be windy, rainy and dark, and then the rain turns to sleet,” I thought, recalling a Christmas in Chicago. “Then the sleet turns to snow and ice, the wind gains blizzard force, and you start floundering in blind, desperate circles.”

    In a Russian folk tale, a peasant and his wife decry their small, cramped bungalow until the rabbi directs them to bring all their livestock into the house. After living like that for a week, the poultry and animals are returned one by one to the barnyard. At the end, the peasants rejoice in their newly spacious home.

    In mid-January, clothing can work like that. If you think you’re cold, remove all garments until you’re standing barefoot amid castoff clothes. Then, after a week, put the clothes back on. You won’t notice the cold nearly as much. Another tactic I use at this time of year is to check out mountaineering books. Reading “The Boys of Everest” or “Into Thin Air” always makes me feel toasty, safe, and frostbite-free.

    Another title I can recommend to those who might feel cold is the Martin Cruz Smith thriller “Polar Star.” Smith sends his disgraced Moscow detective Arkady Renko fleeing to frozen Siberia, then onto a “factory ship” in the Bering Sea, finally onto the arctic ice itself. As each frigid setting lowers the thermometer still further, the reader feels increasingly happy to be in California. Jack London’s Klondike stories produce similar comparative euphoria.

    If psychology and reading fail, I try to get to a laundromat. The washers generate some peripheral warmth if you choose hot water, but the glass doors of the dryers thaw numb hands in seconds with blasts of soul-restoring heat. Once manual dexterity returns, you can feed in more quarters. And because laundromats are well-lighted, you can lean against the dryer door and read “To Build a Fire.”

    Then there are real fires. Generations of Californians have warmed themselves around beach bonfires and blazing 55-gallon drums. Here in PG, fireplaces are numerous, though noxious. My apartment has one, and I used it for a while last winter. It delivered all the expected sensory payoffs – the roar, hiss and crackle, the flaring heat, the flickering orange shadow dance, the shimmer of bedded coals.

    But then one night I walked outside, smelled the acrid smoke, and realized I was poisoning the neighborhood. Now I just light candles in the fireplace. The flickering shadow dance is still there, and for the illusion of warmth, there’s always psychology.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on January 18, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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