Baby, It's Cold Outside


It's been cold lately where I live. Saturday afternoon I had to run some errands and it was 15 degrees F (-9 C) when I left my house. As I flexed my chilly fingers inside my gloves so they'd retain the ability to move and checked the temperature gauge of my car every few seconds to see if the engine was warm enough that I could turn the heat on, I thought to myself, "OK, I remember now: this is what it feels like when it's butt-bustingly cold!"

I've learned this about cold climes: if it's near freezing, you can still have an OK time if you must go outside: you can bundle up for a long walk, or shovel your driveway sans hat, or amble across the street without gloves to ask your neighbor if he'll babysit your cat, and it can actually be pleasant in a bracing, wouldn't-want-to-do-it-everyday-but-this-once-was-fine sort of way. But once it drops to about 25 degrees (-3 C), going outside for anything but a nano-second will suck. And when it gets below zero (-18 C), well, then it REALLY sucks. No matter how many clothes you wear, you're still going to be cold. You might not freeze to death, but you won't feel like stopping to chat with a neighbor. You also won't want to take off your gloves to root around in your pocket for your keys, so make sure you know where they are before you walk out the door. Try to pee before you go out as well, because it's disconcerting to drop your pants and discover that even though it's been covered by underwear, thermal underwear, jeans and a long coat, your ass has become downright icy.

I lived through a few spectacularly dreadful winters in Iowa. In January 1994, it was so cold that all the universities in the state--with the exception of the one I studied at--canceled class: the actual high temperature was near -20 F (-29 C); the wind chill factor made it feel like it -55 F (-48 C). To paraphrase a report I heard on the radio, when it's that cold, "You shouldn't go outside if you can possibly help it, and if you must go outside, be sure to cover every inch of you, because at these temperatures, exposed skin can freeze within 30 seconds."

Of course, classes weren't canceled, so I had to go outside. Not only that, but Iowa City is a town that requires walking: it's rare that you can just drive to some destination, park, then walk a few yards to the door of a cozily heated building. No: you have to walk all over creation, out in the elements, which are often really nasty. So (and this is where I get to lapse into my self-righteous, suffering curmudgeon mode--oh, the anticipation!) I regularly walked the mile and a half from my house to campus in temperatures below zero. (Though I also found all kinds of buildings and shops I could duck into along the way in case it was just too cold to make the trip in one straight shot.)

I would try to explain to a friend of mine, a Celsius-using Brit, how absolutely ass-achingly cold it was. I would say, "The other day the high was -10 degrees, and the low was -22," and he'd say, "Oh, really?" as blandly as if I'd informed him that the sun had risen that day or was scheduled to set at some reasonable hour.

"Yes, really," I'd say, thoroughly peeved. "It was really, truly, awfully, extremely, excruciatingly cold."

"The cold doesn't bother me much," he'd reply. "I grew up in the north of England, not southern Arizona."

So one day I got on the internet, found a temperature conversion program, then said, "The other day the high was -23 degrees C, and the low was -30 C."

To my immense satisfaction, he was suitably awed. "Oh my god!" he said. "I've never experienced anything like that. I can't even imagine how cold that is! OK, now I believe you when you say it's cold."

(Interesting fact: I was playing around with conversion charts and discovered a grand total of one temperature that is the same in both Fahrenheit and Celsius: -40. It didn't even come up as -40 F and -40.33338 or some such thing in Celsius. No, -40 is just -40. Try it yourself. Whereas 40 F equals 4.4444444 C. I find all these fours kind of cool.)

The Midwest is its own special kind of frigid--and I was even in the mid-Midwest, not someplace truly northerly like Winnipeg. Maybe the Midwest isn't as bad as the Arctic, but there are a lot more Midwesterners than Eskimos--hell, I bet there are more people in Chicago alone than there are humans who subsist on seal fat and whale blubber. So I still feel I evinced some sort of moral and physical fortitude by surviving eight Iowa winters.

It rarely gets Midwest miserable where I live now, though this place is certainly colder than Arizona. Just for comparison's sake, here are the temperatures for Saturday, February 18, 2006, for five places where I've spent the month of February, with Winnipeg (which I've never been to) thrown in for good measure:

Northwestern PA: High: 28 F (-2 C) Low: 10 F (-12 C)

Iowa City, Iowa: High: 8 F (-13 C) Low: -8 F (-22 C)

Thatcher, Arizona: High: 72 F (22 C) Low: 44 F (7 C) (God, that seems so civilized, especially since it's cold enough at night that you can layer on some blankets and sleep cuddled up and cozy)

Kaohsiung, Taiwan: High: 75 F (24 C) Low: 64 F (18 C)
(It was WAY colder than that when I was in Kaohsiung)

London, England: High: 45 F (7 C) Low: 34 F (1 C)

Winnipeg, Manitoba: High: 7 F (-14 C) Low: -15 F (-26 C)


Sheesh Holly, I am such a wuss when it comes to being cold! Even in Irvine (where 'dipping' down to 55 is a cold night), I use a heavy down comforter, wear socks to bed, and leave the heater hovering just under 70.

Sometimes I think I would like to live in the East. But those times are never in Jan, Feb, Jul, or Aug.

And I'm complaining about going for my run while the temperature is in the upper-40s F in Irvine.

I love living in places with the classic winter / spring / summer / fall, and I grumble about the monotony of Southern California's so-called seasons, but it is nice when to live in a climate where weather determines little more than my choice of sleeve-length.

As a recent immigrant to the Northeast of England, I can vouch for the way that people in the UK tend to think of this part of the country as "cold." Having moved here after living part-time in Northwestern Pennsylvania and Toronto, Ontario, I found the 5 Celsius and rainy days in December and January positively April-like. Still, I have no special claim to being hardy. The Geordies themselves go out on Friday nights as if it were December in Rio: tee-shirts for the lads, spaghetti strap tops and sandals for the lasses. Not a coat, scarf, or hat to be seen, except perhaps on the immigrants like me.

What are Geordies?

The undergrads in Iowa used to go out on Friday night was it was 25 F, -3 C, dressed in next to nothing, the point being that the bars were going to be very hot and there was no place to stash a coat, so they dressed to be comfortable for the long haul, not the dash from the cab to the door of the bar. It made me crazy to see them: I wanted to yell, "Didn't your mother ever teach you to put a coat on when it's cold outside?" Occasionally one of them would pass out on the way home and end up at the emergency with frostbite (this according to my friend who worked the weekend graveyard shift at the emergency room). It's not hardy to walk around with a coat when it's well and truly cold; it's foolish.

The Wikipedia entry on "Geordie" provides a pretty good account:

I should note that it seems to me that the term "Mackem," used to refer to people from Sunderland (and especially supporters of their benighted football club), appears to be derogatory.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on February 20, 2006 12:16 AM.

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