For the past couple of days, I’ve found myself considering the ancient dilemma of whether I’d rather die by fire or ice. Clutched by a cold snap that has much of the Midwest and Northeast in its vise-grip—including the Philadelphia region where I live—I’ve found myself lately landing solidly, with a frozen thud, on the side of burning up in flames.

 

The high today was 20, due to dip to 13 overnight. At least for me, this qualifies as unbearable. And the forecast is far from rosy. The next few days will remain in the 20s, with a break only projected for Sunday, when the high should reach 32. I’m actually looking forward to freezing.

 

This is the kind of cold in which the half-full bottle of water I left in the car turned to ice by morning, the kind of cold in which I’ve found myself lingering under public bathroom hand dryers. This polar blast brings to mind the Ozark Mountain girl dredging a lake for her father’s hand in “Winter’s Bone,” or the scene in “Fargo” where Jerry’s wife scampers helplessly through the snow in her pajamas and slippers, head covered and hands tied, before being executed. This is the kind of cold that makes me wonder why people live in places like the Ozarks, or Fargo, or Fairbanks—or Philadelphia, for that matter.

 

“Wind, wind, go away/Come again another day,” my 2-year-old and I sang as we bustled out of the minivan and into her preschool yesterday, a gust lashing us in the face. “No!” Jane cried, changing her mind. “Don’t come again!”

 

Once inside, my friend asked me, “Is it too cold to run?” This is my friend from Chicago.

“No,” I said, trying to sound steely.

“Come back for singing—alive!” the preschool teacher called after us.

 

Turns out, it really was too cold to run, 30-mile-per-hour blasts whipping after us as we danced along icy patches. I was wearing so many layers that I couldn’t tell if I was actually moving or not. And when we returned to school to sing with our toddlers, I saw a child from an older class, who’d just come in from recess, sobbing into a trash can.

“Is he throwing up?” I asked, taking a few steps back.

“I think so, a little bit,” a friend said, “because he’s so cold.”

 

The preschool director later emailed that all children should wear insulated coats, all exposed bits of skin should be covered. My cellphone kept blipping with text messages saying that Montgomery County—our county—had extended the “Code Blue” through next Monday. Monday seemed (and still seems) unbearably far off, and I wondered who’d signed me up for these alerts, anyway.

 

And as I was setting our top floor bathroom faucet on a slow drip last night in a feeble attempt to keep our pipes from freezing, I wondered just how slow or fast that drip should be. Should the water should go “plunk, plunk, plunk” at half-second intervals, or should it drop more slowly, “plunk…plunk…plunk,” every second or so? The decision seemed fatally critical and nearly inspired me to call that friend from Chicago for advice, which I refrained from doing only because of the lateness of the hour.

 

I then went downstairs to set up space heaters in the kitchen and family room, where the baseboards prove wholly inadequate even in milder conditions. I kept recalling a report I’d heard earlier in the day, a Wisconsin plumber saying that bathroom vents can freeze over in artic weather such as this, causing methane sewer gas to seep into houses. I also kept darting into the room of our oldest daughter, who kicks off her blankets at night, to make sure she was covered. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well.

 

Then this morning, our twins resisted wearing foul weather gear to kindergarten. “My mother made me put on two pairs of pants,” a classmate cried out as they dashed into the school. I wondered why I hadn’t thought of that. But maybe I shouldn’t worry so much, especially since I saw an adolescent neighbor traipsing home this afternoon without a coat—in shorts.

 

Furthermore, this cold snap has exposed a few bright spots. On my way to an appointment today, I did some child-free grocery shopping and abandoned myself to the perishables, piling up on milk, cheese and yogurt, even tossing in some sushi. I relished the fact that I wouldn’t get home for at least two hours, knowing that the food would stay colder in our minivan that it would in ourrefrigerator.

 

And when I nearly broke my backside on our icy toilet seat last night—and turned the knob on the 1970s baseboard heater in our master bathroom in a fit of desperation—I discovered that it actually worked. For the first time in the four years since we moved into our 108-year-old house, I stepped out of a morning shower onto warm tile. Lingering a few extra minutes in this newfound bathroom cocoon, bracing myself to face the glacial outside, I began thinking again about fire and ice. And I started to reconsider my preference.

 

When it’s 95 and humid, as it often is come summertime in Philadelphia these days, I cannot be outside without feeling nauseous. Even in a bathing suit, I feel fervid and ill. The only escape is into the imprisonment of air conditioning. In frosty conditions, however, I can always add another layer and even wear two pairs of pants, if that’s what it takes to step out into the chill. The cold, even if unpleasant, is ultimately invigorating—at least that’s what I’m telling myself until we snap out of it.

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