The Cold War

Oddly enough, this winter is okay with me. We’ve had snow, and more snow, and not a day of temperature respite in four months.  It’s unusual for Kansas City.   Most winters, we have a day or so a month that the air bobs up to 50 or even 60, and I take the top down on my ancient convertible and remember what air feels like when it’s human-friendly.  Not this winter.  Yet I am okay with this.

Every other February of my life, I have been the most vocal invoker of spring.  I have been the first to say, “Oh, my God, can you believe it is snowing AGAIN?”  It has snowed so much this year, people don’t even talk about it anymore.  This must be what it’s like somewhere up north, where I deliberately don’t live because I’m too skinny to survive.

Every other winter, I eyed my open-toed shoes and sundresses lustfully.  I developed an antipathy for wool and long underwear and layers that make you squirm to shake everything down to its natural level.  I looked at the stripped tree limbs and felt only the loss of their lush, spread-eagle leaves.  I daydreamed about lying on living grass, with sun glaze on my bare, dirty feet.

I don’t feel so dissatisfied this year.

This winter feels protective. The cold keeps me tucked away.  The snow insulates what looks dead, and spreads clean, consistent color where there were organic browns, pale midwestern house paints, and silver cars smudged with road muck.

This winter, I’m not ready yet to underdress and let everyone see my toes.  I know I have more time to preserve what’s good and sift out what’s moldy– literally and metaphorically.  I know I need more time to regroup, before I throw open my house.

I have never understood what winter had to offer, at least not after a cheerfully snowy Christmas and New Year’s.  The dark and cold always made me frustrated.  Personal losses mirror our loss of space and splashy beauty and open windows.

But I’ve never exercised this much through a winter.  I don’t feel stir crazy or numb when I’ve run a mile.  Exercise burns off anger.  So sometimes I’m sadder afterward, but not frozen.  It also helps to live in small space I can afford to heat to a pleasant temperature, and, thanks to our school’s elderly boiler, work in a decidedly balmy classroom.  I would also heartily recommend the hot tub, and a humidifier.

Good habits and cozy environs help.  It’s also possible winter and I have finally come to a truce.  Winter cocoons you, and I may have learned some more value in patience and self-protection.

Mental Exercise

I joined a “fitness center” this week, which made my friends suspect I might have a “brain cloud.”  To put a finer point on it, if any one of my gym teachers could see me on the treadmill, they would blow a valve out of their fit little hearts.

I was the girl who would kindly let you go ahead of me in the batting line, or the kicking line, so that I never had to bat or kick.  I was the girl who was far, far out in the outfield, where no projectile would approach.  If a projectile were to approach, I would do what came naturally: duck and cover.

Knowing that I recently broke up with someone, it makes a little more sense that I would take up exercise.  Pounding out all that anger and nervous energy helps the heartbroken.  The recently dumped also need mood enhancement.  A touch of the runner’s high staves off the “why why why”s.  But to be honest… I was jogging a little in the fall.

I joined this “fitness center” (you see I’m not comfortable even with the terminology) because it adjoins a rehab center.  Half the crowd is busted up somehow, and a lot of them are elderly.  Not merely older.  Elderly.

So there was no intimidation factor for the clumsy, no-aim nerd girl.  I can walk free and easy, without a cane, which makes me the jock of the group.  I can jump up and zip along at 5.5 miles an hour.  Even 6.5.  And there’s no place for my whining about not being in great shape.  If an 80-year-old can totter down into the pool to water walk, well, I can’t feel bad about not being able to run an eight-minute mile.  She’s reminding me to be patient and easy on myself.

After I do my little jog of exactly 20 minutes because that’s how long it takes to become slightly healthier, I sit in the hot tub for 10 minutes because that’s how long one can sit in a hot tub without mummifying oneself upon reencountering the dry January air.  Yesterday, sitting steaming the crinks out of my brain, gazing at the swimmers splashing up and down the lanes, I thought: maybe it’s not that I don’t want to be intimidated.  Maybe I am obsessed with being better than everyone else.

I like to think I am not competitive, but this is only sometimes true.  I’m not competitive as long as I can come up with a reason that I secretly “win” in my own mind.  I “win” at exercising because I am young and healthy– although I’ve done nothing to earn youth, and not much to earn health, either.  (I ate a helping heap of volcano cake and cool whip when I got home.  It was delicious.)

The more I thought about it, the more examples of this kind of thinking popped up, like bubbles from the jets.  How often have I consoled myself about not having money by telling myself my job was more meaningful than someone else’s?  (As if I were the great judge of “meaning.”)  How often have I told myself that I’m not cheerfully friendly because I’m such an excellent listener one-on-one?  (As if intimacy is better than courtesy.)  That it’s okay to be late for work because I’m so darn focused  and clever when I get there?  (Completely betraying my uptight, Germanic heritage.)

These are ridiculous competitive thoughts.  It’s okay to not beat everyone, all the time, because you have a secret ace in the hole that makes you “better.”

But don’t worry: through the influence of warm water and another languid seven minutes, I decided this doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, or that my introspection makes me better than you.  I don’t know.  It may mean I’m a worse person, you know, all Hamlet-like.  That Hamlet was a real smarty-pants, covertly competitive type.