Sitting in Atlanta GA at a temperate 39 degrees this morning, and seeing that the weather in Madison WI is back to a seasonal 12 degrees or so (above zero this time), it feels odd to post about the cold. But a couple of weeks ago when I cancelled my January “First Monday First Person” salon due to subzero cold, I offered a writing prompt: Compare and contrast. “When was the last time you dealt with cold this extreme, and when was the moment in your life most opposite to that?” I curled up with the prompt and here’s what came out. -Sarah White
Adjusting my scarf this morning as I prepared to walk my dog, an incongruous image came to mind: a ballerina strapping on her toe shoes. She attends to detail with the knowledge that one slip in the preparation of her gear can mean physical injury.
The same is true for me as I prepare to step out into the pre-dawn double-digit sub-zero cold. It’s January in Wisconsin. For the last three mornings I’ve risen to temperatures somewhere between -15 and -20 F. The wind chill is worthy of school cancellations and danger crawlers on the TV news.
In winter I double my layers as a rule. In sub-zero I go for triple. Three socks (2 wool over little cotton foots). My roomiest jeans over sweatpants over Smartwool long johns. Thermal undershirt, hoodie, and Lands End “good to -10” coat. Hands in wool mittens over cheap cotton kids’ gloves over silk glove liners. These last two provide enough dexterity to tie off a baggie of dog poop with mittens temporarily removed. Just pray the dog doesn’t get into burrs, because that means stripping to naked flesh and serious risk of frostbite. Luckily most of the burrs are under a foot of snow by now.
The worst is the head, because I wear glasses. This prevents me from wearing a ski mask and causes all kind of fogging-up issues if I don’t get the wrap just right. And that’s where the ballerina image comes from.
Pull hoodie up, open zipper of coat enough to anchor one end of a broad scarf; wrap it loosely enough to create a warm breath-space and an opening for that breath to escape without fogging glasses, anchor the tail end and zip the coat back up. On the first morning the wind numbed my forehead, so the next day I added a wide thermal headband pulled down to just above my glasses.
Success. In this get-up I can stand being outside for 15 minutes. I move like a child stuffed in a snow-suit, but I can walk the dog.
The dog wears nothing but a thick thatch of terrier fur and doesn’t seem to mind a bit.
As I walk, I dream of warm places. I start taking inventory of the hottest weather I’ve ever experienced. Was it Belize, 2004? No, we hit a surprisingly moderate spell when I traveled there with a pair of acquaintances from the dog park. It was 80s and humid when it wasn’t raining, but it wasn’t the worst I’ve ever experienced.
The tally continues… and comes to rest on August 1976.
That summer I returned to Indiana University to room with my friend Colette in the upstairs of an old house on Fourth Street. I’d arrived in June and enrolled in summer school, which gave me air conditioning to escape into during much of the day.
But August arrived and classes ended. A funk of heat came and stayed. Bloomington is situated poorly for hot weather; a bowl-shaped depression in the southern Indiana hills catches and holds cloud systems in what we learned to call thermal inversion. When that happens, the heat and humidity just intensify day by day, unrelieved until until a Canadian col front can clear the air.
I had known plenty of heat and humidity growing up in Carmel—and had found summer school a convenient escape even in high school—but it was nothing like this. The temperature stayed around 100 throughout the day. At nightfall a slight relief would arrive—temperatures might fall to 90.
No one’s house had air conditioning; we went to the Two Bit Rush for the chilled air as much as the coffee. When we could afford it, Colette and I would walk the blistering sidewalks a few blocks to a Chinese restaurant and order one course after another, nursing each to prolong our shelter in their air conditioning, drawing out our idle conversation with speculations stemming from “It never ceases to amaze me…”
One evening our rooms were so hot we just had to get out of the apartment, but we didn’t have enough money to go anywhere air-conditioned. “Let’s walk the dog,” Colette said.
Indoors we wore next to nothing, so we had to dress for the outing. At the time I was into vintage clothes; most of my wardrobe came from an aunt who had been a college girl in the 1950s. Among her things was a strapless cotton slip with a top puckered with elastic and the skirt a bell of fabric that ended just below my knees. I’m sure it was meant to go under some fabulous 50s party dress. I had dyed it bright yellow to hide its underwear origins, but had not yet had the courage to leave the house in it. This was the night.
Colette pulled on a sort of baby-doll nightie; as I recall it was pale green, perhaps a gingham sort of check, and came down to a decent above-the-knee length. We leashed up Indra the Airdale and stepped out onto the sidewalk.
Slowly we strolled through the still air of a humid twilight, imagining a breeze flitted past though there was none. A block or so west on Fourth Street, we turned north. We crossed Kirkwood, the main student-shopping drag, and continued north a few blocks. Our meandering brought us past a dorm. Students trying to avoid the heat hung out their windows and lounged on the lawn.
As we came into view, wolf whistles filled the air. I was not experienced with attracting wolf whistles but Colette, willowy except where she was bosomy, was much more familiar with them. Heads high and shoulder to shoulder, we gave our audience no reaction.
But that’s what pinned that August evening in memory—the sudden realization, brought on by boys’ whistles, that the heat had driven us out into the streets dressed only in our underthings.
Cold can drive people to desperate acts—breaking into cabins and cars, escaped prisoners turning themselves back in to their guards. But only heat can drive you onto the street indecent.