The cold is all in our head

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Macro of frost on glass

It’s cold in Chicago for the second time this January. A stark contrast from last Juneuary, our first (mild) winter in the Windy City.

By cold, I mean all that air that normally oscillates around the North Pole and makes it particularly uninhabitable, has wobbled out of its usual orbit and is swinging, seemingly at random, into latitudes not quite used to these temperatures.

Meanwhile, our old comrades in Alaska are reporting green lawns, buds on trees and spring-like temperatures during a particularly balmy winter.

As the mercury fell yesterday afternoon, I made my way into Union Station in time to find that many of Metra’s trains were delayed due to switching problems or equipment failure.

One Metra employee waiting on the 6:15 Southwest Service near me said: “These trains just weren’t built for this kind of weather.”

And I thought to myself, how short sighted all of this is.

We have the entire collected knowledge of the world at our finger tips, and yet we don’t remember the cold.

When the 812 finally rolled up to the station slowly, with frost hanging off it like a well-chilled bottle of vodka straight from the freezer, we padded down the platform in winter boots and wrapped from head to toe in warm clothing, both synthetic and animal.

Most of us had scarves covering our faces as we sucked in the icy air.

The train slowed to a crawl and finally inched forward, but the doors did not open.

I watched the people around start to dance, as if they were children needing to go to the toilet. They hopped back and forth on their feet and complained loudly through muffled layers of clothing.

“Open the doors already,” one man said to no one and everyone in particular.

Soon the panic set in, and many began racing back towards the relative warmth of the station inside the sliding glass doors.

When the doors on the first third of the train finally opened, it was like a mad stampede to get inside.

It was -2 at the time, and as I walked toward the doors and the wad of humanity trying to squeeze in, I wondered at our perception of cold.

I wasn’t warm, by any means, even though I was draped in a gray Patagonia jacket with goose down insulation, a warm scarf and a North Face hat pull down over my ears. My fingers were encased in insulated leather gloves.

But I wasn’t panicky cold either. Working in Alaska for two years taught me a little about what it means to feel intense cold, and I know that some people experience different sensations in the cold.

I tend to run fairly hot compared to some of my colleagues at work. I can sit in a meeting and sip water and perspire in 65-degree temperatures, while my colleagues wrap themselves in wool sweaters and sip on tea at the same time.

Leaving the house for work lately after ingesting multiple news sources telling me just how unnaturally cold it is right at this moment leaves me in a state of mind that is rather ripe for cold panic.

When I open that garage door and the cold air comes rushing in like a punch to the face, it does so with so much more force for the television meteorologist who just told me how brutal this morning will be.

It’s -11 as I write this, but the sky is blazingly clear just before the sun clears the horizon. I walked into the gym this morning in shorts and a sweatshirt.

I did not die.

And when I left, well, my walk to the car redefined the term cool down.

Again, I did not die.

Like most of Chicago, I will eagerly watch the rising mercury today hoping for 5 degrees for the evening commute. But I suspect that will still feel cold to some people.

And I’m trying to capture each memory of being cold right now for next summer when I’m sweltering in 90 degrees and 98 percent humidity.

When it’s cold, you can always get warm. When it’s hot, you cannot always get cold.

Just remember, it’s all in your head.


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