Monday, January 13, 2014

`All I Know of Disagreeable in Cold'

Joseph Epstein celebrates the horrors of winter in Chicago for readers of The Daily Telegraph of London. Though he opens with an observation by the great Indian writer R.K. Narayan, I detect in Epstein’s essay a familiar note of Midwestern winter bluster coupled with a witty undercutting of same. My home town, Cleveland, is frozen to the southern shore of Lake Erie, slightly east of midway between two better-known legends of weather lore, Chicago and Buffalo. We endured the “lake effect,” which I see has earned its own Wikipedia entry. We were proud of the veneer of scientific respectability the phrase lent to skin-shredding winds and three feet of snow. We reveled in what Epstein calls “weather machismo.” My favorite memory of this ilk dates from elementary school – walking half a mile on a winter morning, hair still moist from a “wet comb,” and feeling the crinkle in my scalp as my coif froze into stiff spikes. It was like wearing a helmet. Seated in class next to the steam radiator, the ice melted and sent shivery rivulets down my back, under my corduroy shirt. O felix culpa. 

The reader who passed along a link to the essay is a friend of Epstein’s, and he added: “Best prose of this type the Limeys have seen since [Charles] Lamb.” That got me to wondering about Lamb’s response to the burning cold of a London winter. Typically, he wrote about it in May – May 16, 1826, to be precise – in a letter to his friend Bernard Barton. He speaks like a true Midwesterner:

“Coleridge writing to me a week or two since begins his note -- `Summer has set in with its usual Severity.’ A cold Summer is all I know of disagreeable in cold. I do not mind the utmost rigour of real Winter, but these smiling hypocrites of Mays wither me to death.” 

[When, we wonder, will Epstein devote an essay to Charles Lamb, as he has to Lamb’s great friend and fellow-essayist William Hazlitt?]


Chuck Kelly said...

Back in 1982 I traveled to Chicago for a business meeting. As my plane landed the pilot said the air temp was -26. The wind was howling, which brought the wind chill to -82.

As I walked to my meeting the next morning, I began feeling an odd sensation in my nose. I thought maybe it needed a good cleaning. After I performed a digital inspection and examined the results, I realized my breath was freezing to the hairs in my nose.

I was reminded of London's short story "Fifty Below." The narrator says you can tell when it's -50 because at that temperature spit will freeze before it hits the ground. Maybe so.

Chuck Kelly said...

Oops - my memory failed me. The short story is "To Build A Fire."