Tuesday, January 7, 2014

It's Almost Like It's January Or Something

There's a peculiar look to the air when temperatures drop into the negative double digits. Everything takes on an unreal tinge, like you're viewing tilt shift photography or peering into a very large, very cold oven. The air is clear and still and looks inhospitable, as if you're looking out on some other planet, a planet where the atmosphere is largely argon, say, or sulfur hexaflouride. Not something you'd want to breathe, that's for sure.

I've never been able to put my finger on exactly what that shimmer is. Maybe it's 50% in my head, maybe it's something inside me reacting to how still it is on days like this. Nothing capable of moving wants to move when it's -12 on the interesting side of zero. Nature abhors a vacuum, they always say, and when it's this cold, you never feel that you're very far from outer space.

You step outside, and a part of your brain simply refuses to let you feel the largest part of the cold. It's like your body tells you "nope, I'm not going to let you feel that. You do whatever you have to do and I'll get along with the business of hypothermia."

It hurts to breathe--even through your nose. A lot of things you take for granted just don't play out the way you expect them to. Water, for example, doesn't want to stay liquid. Your hair freezes, even the tiny ones inside your nostrils.

I've had a lot of time to think about the different kinds of cold, given that I'm from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. You've got wet-cold, dry-cold, "cold rising to more agreeable temperatures with sunshine which makes you feel against all common sense that shorts aren't such a bad idea today" and even cold that only you feel while your friends feel decidedly toasty. There's a billion flavors. Even though Yoopers don't have words for them all, like that fabled myth about the Inuits, you get the sense that maybe they should.

It probably explains why I don't really mention smell much when I'm describing things in prose. For roughly one-half of the year when I grew up, smell was not something you put much weight on. It's not a sensation that exists once the mercury free-falls beyond a certain point--smell is very much a seasonal thing in the Upper Peninsula. If your sinuses aren't packed by February, they're numbed by the cold. If you smell something, you're usually either grateful it's not frozen or you're grateful that you simply can because it means your nose has reached an internal temperature past the melting point of water.

There's nothing quite like a cold snap combined with a pulp fiction binge to lampshade a weakness in your own writing style. I'm having fewer problems with my sinuses now that I have my last two wisdom teeth out--I think one of them was impinging on something inside my nose which was essential to being able to breathe in suboptimal breathing conditions. Whatever it was, I'm clogged up less and noticing smell more. I suppose that's good timing.

The aforementioned pulp fiction was a collection of fantasy short stories by Fritz Leiber. They're quite a bit snappier and more funny than I remembered from the last time I read them, as a child. It's a rather eye-opening experience. There's an economy to the classic pulp writers' fiction you just don't see in fantasy these days. You had a certain amount of pages to tell your story, after all, and you'd better damn well make sure that everything pops. The description is taught, the action crackles and the characterization takes a just-so amount of space. It makes you feel pretty humble reading it. I'd take notes, but I think my pens are all frozen.

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