When the hair in your nose instantly congeals and bubbles freeze on bushes; it’s cold. “What are you doing blowing bubbles, if it’s that cold?” I hear you asking. When it is that cold, we cancel school and invent science experiments to pass the time—bubbles do freeze quickly; boiling water does not. Old timers and people with money always mention that they made it to school just fine when they were kids. “Today’s kids are too soft,” they say. “Anyone could be warm if they had a coat, mittens, long underwear, a hat, and snow pants,” I say. Lots of kids don’t have Rubbermaid buckets of seasonal clothing like I do. Maybe their parents don’t know any better, maybe they just choose other things like rent and food vs. extreme weather clothing. Let’s just agree then, that -20 Fahrenheit is cold. We all approach weather from our own perspective–no unlearning necessary here.
Twenty degrees above zero feels like a heat wave after even an hour of 20 below. Unfortunately we don’t just get an hour of -20, we get 72 hours of it. Then we start looking at records, “Back in 1977 we had 72 days of….” The stories quickly build. I was kid back then, it wasn’t that cold. Twenty degrees above zero brings old men out in shorts and teenagers skating in t-shirts. That’s ice-skating. Outside. Still, I must admit it feels great to take a deep, humid breath outside without my lungs constricting.
I know cold. I know the nuances of layering, of down vs. Polartec, of when to give in and avoid frostbite. I thought I knew heat, but I was wrong.
We never used the wondrous central air conditioning of my childhood. According to my parents it was never that warm. I always figured the light summer air felt good after a day cooped up in overly cooled medical offices. Decades later, I realized their definition of hot came from years in Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida. They were Northerners, but time in the South colored their perception.
It took decades for me to learn the difference between very warm and hot because that’s when I moved to The South. Eighty degrees where I live today, is sweltering. Air conditioners drone abysmally in July and August. Schools close to prevent heat exhaustion. Four summers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina taught me the rough differences between the simple warmth of 85, the invitation to swim of 92, and the hell of 98 and humid. I needed more time to develop the finesse of knowing when school would close due to the threat of snow, but I was tired of melting.
My neighbors today–those tough Northerners who embrace epic wind chills shake their heads in confusion at my open windows all summer long. I hate air conditioning. I still don’t go swimming unless it’s 92. It’s got to be at least very warm before I risk a toe in an outdoor pool.
Weather, like politics is contextual. Until you change your latitude, to quote Jimmy Buffet, you can’t unlearn your sense of hot and cold.This essay was written for Cathy Davidson’s Coursera course, History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education. And it was due an hour ago…