As a child growing up, I would always hear my mother – a native of Jamaica – complain bitterly, winter in and winter out, about the cold weather in Michigan. As a kid, I was not terribly concerned about these things. I would sometimes underdress for the temperature at recess, defiantly insisting to any inquiring adult that I was warm enough. I would also enjoy the snow, sledding, building snowmen and throwing snowballs whenever I got the chance. Winter was not the enemy. I wasn’t particularly temperature sensitive in general. I was comfortable indoors, and mostly indifferent to adjustments of the thermostat.
Then, somewhere in my twenties, something happened. My Jamaican blood manifested, inflicting upon me what I call “Bustamante’s revenge”. I suddenly became very sensitive to cold. The awareness, and the suffering, grow worse every year. It’s one of those “I’m becoming my parents” revelations that seems to come so fast and heavy in one’s twenties. But in a day-to-day sense – living in the Midwest and New England – it has become a constant struggle.
Being cold while indoors helped to drive me out of my previous life. At my last engineering job, I was moved mid-employment, rather unhappily, to an expansion office down the road from the original. The co-workers I had there were cold-weather people. They would stroll happily about the office in short sleeves as I sat layered in a t-shirt, dress shirt and sweater. My hands and feet would ache dully all day with cold. This was not strictly a winter phenomenon. The thermostat was essentially constant (a dubious “73o F”) year-round, as were my layers. I felt absurd and frustrated, leaving my apartment in mid-July in layers, preparing to be cold all day. Bustamante laughed heartily at my northern latitude and my sedentary lifestyle.
Any time it became reasonably hot in Chicago (like in the SUMMER for example), most people would begin to grouse and complain relentlessly. Sweating is apparently an unthinkable discomfort to certain Midwestern adults, and cause for emergency if it should happen indoors during the workday. “Shut the fuck up and quit whining!” I often wanted to shout “It’s cold 79.8% of the time here, and you’ve air-conditioned every goddamned building in this city out of any semblance of warmth!” Instead I would say something mild like “Oh, well I like it hot, so it’s fine with me.” The first time I went to Bonnaroo music festival, the average temperature during the day was probably about 88o F. Though it made sleeping pretty miserable and I got a sunburn, I otherwise loved the heat. I would go frolic in the microbially questionable waters of mushroom fountain then go dry in the sun. The people I traveled to the festival with did not share my enthusiasm.
Often times at the office I would rub my cold hands together and think bitter, sometimes racist thoughts. “These white people like their living and working spaces as cold as their hearts.” I would hiss to myself, a shivering Gollum in my climate-controlled beige cubicle. “Not everyone has a thick layer of blubber to keep them warm. Why should I be punished for my healthy BMI?”
My favorite part of that job was going across the street to Settler’s Park during warm weather lunchtimes. I would sit out on the grass next to the pond, with my lunch and a good book, and sweat happily in the sun. I was not always punctual in returning to the air-conditioned prison that housed my desk.
The apartment I lived in was a duplex, which in Chicago means a single apartment with two floors. My bedroom was on the bottom floor, while my three roommates had theirs upstairs. It was consistently about five degrees warmer upstairs, so I understood why they set the thermostat at 67o F. That doesn’t mean I didn’t hate it. During the winter I would bundle heavily, yet I was still cold. In the summer I would wear a hooded sweatshirt and pants indoors, but I was still cold. My apartment didn’t have a yard or deck. It was cold at work, cold at home, or as the saying goes – “Out of the icebox and into the tundra”.
Snow also became the enemy. No longer did I enjoy frolicking in the powdery white. They say Eskimos have 50 words for snow. In the Midwest it’s the opposite – “Snow” has many meanings, at least to adults. These include “Water frozen into crystalline flakes”, “Scraping ice off the windshield”, “Shoveling the walkways”, “Getting into a cold car”, “Deciding between clunky boots or ruining your shoes”, “Increased chances of getting a parking ticket”, “Ugly grey slush”, “Tracking water into the house” and “Extra-long commute”. The last of these became acutely clear to me, as one a Friday afternoon snowstorm mutated my 40-mile commute home into a grueling, tense, three-hour and forty-five minute long odyssey on Interstate 55.
This seemingly mundane discomfort had significant psychological effects. I felt like I was not in control of my life, subject to the heat whims of alleged superiors and majorities who were uninterested in my needs and preferences. I began to resent the people who controlled the atmospheres I lived in. I felt weak, different, and alone for being the only person who liked to feel the warm pressure of the sun’s rays, to pinball in mosh pits humid with body heat, to bask in balmy ambient temperatures, indoors and out.
I found comfort in strange places. Listening to certain wintry songs would restore some of romance of winter. The peace, the quiet, the poignant melancholy –
The Dismemberment Plan – Spider in the Snow
Clipse – Ride Around Shining
Enslaved – Api-Vat
Bjӧrk – It’s Not Up to You
GZA – Investigative Reports
Yes – South Side of the Sky
Old Man Gloom – ‘Tis Better to Receive
Cannibal Ox – Pigeon
And most especially of all, Emperor’s “In My Kingdom Cold”. When Abbath Doom Occulta shrills “Open the gate! There’s a mountain of ice, rising with the shadows, a cold world made for meeeeeeee” I feel like he is telling my story, and romanticizing my struggle. Perhaps I am not cold by choice, but the sheer unintentional goofiness of “In My Kingdom Cold” helps me to laugh at myself a little, to stop taking the cold as such a serious affront. Its earnest celebration of icy solitude helps me to mentally embrace my unfortunate station.
I’d love to say that since I declared “So Long, Stinkjob!” I’ve become warm again, and that being cold, like being bored at my desk, is just an unpleasant memory. Unfortunately, this is not so. The house I am renting is large and is outfitted with oil heat. Warming it to my preferred temperature would completely bankrupt me. The thermostat usually sits at 58o F. Sometimes I turn it down if I will be away for the weekend or most of the day. In the house I wear boxers, a t-shirt, crew socks, a fleece thermal shirt, heavy duty long-johns, pants, a hooded sweatshirt and shoes. I keep the hood up to prevent heat loss through my scalp and ears. It’s as bad or worse than my previous cold situation, but with two important differences. First, the cold is self-inflicted – no one is making me shiver. Second, I am not forced into denial of warm weather when it comes around. I will be out in the hot sun every chance I get in the spring.
I also have a wood-burning stove at the house, and a pile of firewood. It ameliorates the situation somewhat, but requires a decent amount of work. Even sitting as close to the fire as safely possible, I rarely get that warm.
I went back to my childhood home over Christmas and New Year’s, and definitely appreciated how warm the house was. It felt sinfully good to walk around the house in a t-shirt. A warm home was something I had taken for granted for a long time. Never again.
Every winter, more than a few people living in the Midwest look at each other and say “Why do we do this? What is this bizarre way of life?” Some hold out then retire to Florida. Others move south or southwest, giving in to what their body is telling them. I’m over the northern fool’s pride that has made me believe that there’s something noble about suffering through beastly winter after beastly winter. I saw a newscast about the “Polar Vortex” recently. They interviewed a woman in sunny, warm California who said essentially “I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty awesome to be outside in short sleeves today.” She then took a big lick of her ice cream cone. I hated her intensely, but only because she is smarter than me. I’m sick of this shit. I’m sick of being cold, and I’m sick of fighting against the cold will of the majority. If I get another office job, I know I’ll be layering again, and shivering in the air conditioning at summer’s apex. I’m through suppressing my biology. It’s making me bitter and numb. It’s time to give in to the clarion call of the sun. As soon as I get the chance I’m saying goodbye to this cruel cycle of retarded molecules and moving to Santa Cruz.