STEINBERG: All Chicagoans are now children of a cold sun
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If you think you have it bad, consider the arctic wooly bear caterpillar, who spends the bulk of his life frozen solid.
Ground squirrels hardly fare better: hibernating up to eight months a year, though every two weeks they tremble back to semi-warmth, then return to their winter coma.
Consider today’s column to be a written version of the squirrelly shiver, a healthy shake to wake ourselves up, get our blood going after too long a period at low temperature.
The coldest Chicago Christmas in a decade, with the promise of single digits until after New Year’s. Days and days that can seem forever.
“There’s no end in sight” began the official National Weather Service report Thursday, indicating that Friday will rise to a balmy 18-degree high, only to slam back down to 2 below by nightfall; down to minus-25 with the wind chill.
So let’s talk about cold.
If you could go back in time a thousand years, stride into a snow-covered winter encampment of Saxon marauders, boldly tap a fierce thane on his bearskin shoulder and ask how he is — “Hū eart þū?” — he might tersely reply, “Cald.”
The blunt word, aptly frozen, comes down to us practically unchanged. The original language of the 1390s Canterbury Tales is almost incomprehensible today. But “cold” stands out. Consider a line from The Miller’s Tale:
“And caughte the kultour by the colde stele.”
Or in modern English:
“He grabbed the poker by its cold end.”
No other word really can replace it. “Frigid” and “freezing” and “arctic” and “icy” and all the other synonyms are fine, in their place. But none fits real life. Nobody stamps into the house, stamping, and exclaims, “It’s Siberian outside!”
Sometimes, tiring of constant repetition of the c-word, I’ll try, “It’s like being in outer space,” thinking of that scene in “2001: A Space Odyssey” where David Bowman blasts unhelmeted into the air lock of the Discovery. (It’s not. Outer space is minus-450 degrees).
Writers struggle to do better.
“Children of the cold sun,” begins the David Wolff poem that Nelson Algren uses as an epigraph to “The Neon Wilderness.” Algren clutches at the most basic metaphors.
“You was stopped so cold like a popsicle,” he writes in “Never Come Morning.” “As cold as the edge of a spring-blade knife.”
Warming to my theme, I headed over to the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications noon press conference, and was reminded of the relative quality of cold: 16 degrees was practically balmy compared to the minus-5 of earlier in the week: so cold I had put on shop goggles to walk the dog.
“We recommend avoiding any unnecessary trips outside,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, chief medical officer at the Chicago Department of Health.
Now she tells us, I thought. She did recommend high-energy foods, which made me feel a little better about the leftover Christmas cookies I had inhaled that morning. Not pigging out, but powering up!
The rest of the press conference was the usual stuff — call 311 if you have trouble with heat or need transport to a shelter. Though there is a 50 percent chance of snow Friday, and acting Streets and Sanitation commissioner John Tully used a term I sincerely admired: “we have a team of 211 pieces of snow-fighting equipment out there.” “Snowfighting equipment” — don’t you love how that adds an element of the heroic to what might otherwise be considered the mundane act of plowing and salting? I do.
Heading out of the house Thursday, I had noticed small birds, none weighing more than an ounce or two, picking at the feeder. We complain about the cold, while birds stoically cope with it.
“It’s truly amazing,” said John Bates, associate curator of birds at the Field Museum. “Some species have managed quite well.” They fluff their feathers, eat a lot, have special capillary webs warming their feet.
Birds employ one strategy people should emulate.
“They don’t have a lot of exposed skin,” said Bates, noting that snowy owls not only have feathered legs but feathered toes.
Those arctic caterpillars, by the way, eventually unfreeze and live their lives as fully as they can in the brief period of warmth allotted them. As must we all.