“Easy to be hard, easy to be cold.”

Three Dog Night

At twenty below, I wasn’t sure the car would start, but it turned over quickly. The heater under the battery had worked, as had the oil plug heater. Apparently the dipstick heaters were overrated, so I had gone with the local mechanic’s advice. For the first hundred yards or so, the tires thumped rhythmically (whomp, whomp, whomp!) until they warmed up enough to roll out the flat side from sitting overnight. Nothing had disturbed the plug-ins connected to the heaters, otherwise I would have had to wait about four hours for the car to start.

Moving from Atlanta to Fairbanks was an adventure and a shock to the system. We arrived in October to pleasant, cool weather, but by November we had a week with nothing higher than ten above. Parking lots and meters in town had plug-ins for your car and the cold was discussed as an active adversary. On the radio they reported a man wearing business slacks who tried to change a flat tire beside the road, only to find his knee frozen to the ground. He nearly died just going to work.

While the cold was pervasive, we did enjoy watching the national weather when they reported colder temperatures in Bismark, ND than we had in Fairbanks. Years later, I joined a field team in Bismark in December that was sampling sewers in a local refinery.

Sewer sampling is seldom as much fun as it sounds, and refineries have a lot of nasty stuff in their sewers besides sewage. The work required a lot of personal protective equipment due to the chemicals and bacteria present, and of course we were there during a major cold spell. Half-face respirators and safety glasses; insulated coveralls underneath Tyvek suits; Neoprene gloves over ski gloves; rubber booties over snow boots; and hard hat liners and ear muffs under the hard hats. So, we clumsily pulled manhole covers and peeked in trying not to lose our hard hats down the hole, and prepared our mechanical samplers and delicate glass bottles for the samples. Decontamination was a challenge at ten degrees, since we had to wash everything off with water, then with cleanser, then water again and dry everything before it could go back into the van. Similarly, if we got anything on us in the process, we had to remove and bag the tyveks or gloves or booties without removing the warmer clothing underneath.

We were inefficient, but persevered and collected most of the samples and data we needed. The plant’s site safety officer checked on us frequently, but after a week, the temperature dropped (beating Fairbanks again), and the wind came up. At ten below, he inspected us and then shut us down, since we each had frostbite on our cheeks around the respirators. It was a relief to leave and let another team come back when it was warmer for anything we missed. It didn’t hurt that we made it back home for Christmas.

Once a group of us camped on an unexpectedly cold night in the Colorado mountains. We built up the campfire and no one wanted to be the first into the cold tents. Shonto, my dog from Alaska, hovered near the fire and would occasionally come lean against one of us bringing more warmth from the fire. When it was time to go to bed, there was a mad scramble to entice Shonto into your tent. I think the winner cheated by using some jerky to tip the scales. So much for man’s best friend and owner loyalty. We needed more dogs.

In Fairbanks and Bismark, and when I’ve skied or been out in the mountains in winter, you are usually able to dress for the cold and be mentally ready for it. However, temporarily working in downtown Chicago was probably my greatest encounter with being cold. Unlike Denver, Chicago had East Coast pretensions to business dress, so a jacket and slacks were usually expected. I learned that natives had these (expensive) heavy wool overcoats that, unlike my ski jacket, fit comfortably over dress clothes. People were aloof and it felt unfriendly. Walking six blocks through downtown, with the cold, the damp and the wind (oh, the wind!) was excruciating. I was tempted to mug someone for their wool overcoat, but the ones that would have fit me were worn by really big guys that I didn’t want to mess with.

The contrast between being cold in Fairbanks and being cold in Chicago kept nagging at my mind. In the middle of the night, I could stroll to the porch of our cabin in the woods outside Fairbanks at twenty below, wearing only my pajamas (I wore none), and pee off the porch. I’d get a little chilly, but the cold and the fresh — really fresh — air felt natural, invigorating. The cold in Chicago was never invigorating, and never felt natural. Anyway, having some drunk or street person pee in an alley as you walk by doesn’t feel natural, improve the freshness of the air or increase your desire to chat them up.

Maybe the difference is just humanity versus nature. I can walk near my Colorado home and not really notice a smell of car exhaust or the bits of trash scattered along the sidewalk. But out on a trail, I’m conscious of various smells and every bit of human detritus, and I usually feel compelled to clean it up. People I meet on the trail always say hello and sometimes exchange more pleasantries. In the city, we try to avoid eye contact and seldom acknowledge the others’ existence.

A young colleague in Fairbanks had seldom been ‘outside’ (down to the Lower 48 states), and we sent him to Los Angeles for a meeting in a downtown hotel. He was burly, had long bushy hair, a giant red beard and that kind of too-open demeanor often associated with naivete. He wore his best jeans and bought a new plaid flannel shirt for the trip. When he came back we asked how he had fared. He told us that LA was pretty awesome, but there were a lot of people and they were weird. Of course we all expected LA people to be weird, but he elaborated.

“No one would look at me,” he noted, “and when I spoke to them, just saying ‘Hi!’, they flinched or looked away. Basically, they were pretty rude.”

Welcome to the big city. I don’t think LA was ready for him. Too cold.

But, cities can be cold in many ways. In heated and air conditioned buildings we are separated from nature, from the natural world. Our views, if we have them, may be through tinted glass in windows that will not open onto unattractive buildings and parking lots. The air we breathe contains the concentrated exhalations of other people and off-gassing from innumerable chemically-laden objects, including our own dry-cleaned clothes. Because we are safely ensconced inside away from the weather, we are often surprised when we go outside to find that it is really nice or very comfortable out there.

Inside, there are too many people to interact with. It is unnecessary to say hello to someone every time you pass their desk or cube; in fact, it would be weird if you did. You’d never get anywhere if you stopped to chat with each person. Anyway, some people you don’t know and ignore, and others you just don’t want to acknowledge or want to actively avoid. It is easy to be cold. It doesn’t take someone peeing in an alley to make you want to keep others away, physically or emotionally.

It’s no wonder that the number one factor in employee retention is the people you work with. In spite of the ping pong tables, flex time and snack machines, ambiance means very little if the people don’t fit together. We learn to protect ourselves from the boring drone, the too emotional hot-head or sob sister, or the one guy that really gets our goat. It becomes easy to turn a cold shoulder to too many of the people around us – it can become a habit or involuntary first response. Worse yet, we can carry that attitude home with us, and become remote even to those closest to us.

What we need is a way to make our our workplaces and relationships warmer. Just like in town, where one person can’t pick up every bit of trash, one person cannot be warm towards everyone they meet. However, that places an extra burden on us to be warmer with those near to us. In the movie, Avatar, the Navi used the phrase, “I see you” to connote acceptance of someone – that they were seen as a real person. Maybe we need to find more and better ways to show that we “see” each other.

It’s a cold world out there, and we need to listen for the “whomp, whomp, whomp” that tells us we’re being a little too cold ourselves. Think of it as global warming on a personal scale; you know, warming of the good kind.

2 thoughts on “Cold

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