A Matter Of Degrees

So far I haven't learned the true meaning of friendship, but the cold may last a few more days.

After an early-fall marching band practice during my senior year at the University of Oregon, one of the freshmen in the trumpet section, who had grown up in California, approached a group of us hardy, Oregon-born upperclassmen, anxiously rubbing his hands together and blowing on them.

“Guys,” he said to us, earnestly. “I can’t feel my fingers. I think I might have frostbite.”

We promptly burst out laughing, because at the time it was 44 degrees and brilliantly sunny, and most of us were wearing light jackets or none at all. This comment was so hysterical to us that we actually turned it into a running joke for the rest of the football season:

“Okay everybody, be sure to bundle up before we get on the motor coach – the driver has the air conditioning on and we don’t want any of you getting frostbite.”

“Whew, almost didn’t make it to rehearsal today. Last night I flipped my pillow over and the other side was so cold I got frostbite in my neck.”

“Don’t touch that beer! It only came out of the refrigerator two hours ago! What, do you want to get frostbite or something?”

By my senior year I had long since committed to the idea of moving to LA after graduation, so every time we made one of these jokes it reinforced the notion in my head that California must be a balmy, subtropical paradise, and when I moved there I would never be cold again for the rest of my life.

Looking back, it wasn’t that I was naïve about the weather in Southern California – I’d been to LA a dozen or so times and was aware that it could get chilly there on occasion. I’d just been so worn down after 22 consecutive Pacific Northwest winters that I wanted to believe it was true.  

Winter in western Oregon has a way of chipping away at your sanity like that. It won’t bury you under ten feet of snow or lay down a thick sheet of ice on all the roads (except that one time in 2004) – it’ll just be really dark, cold, and drizzly nonstop for seven or eight months, which, like certain enhanced interrogation techniques, may not technically be torture but can still do some serious emotional damage.  

Case in point: When I was a junior in high school we got a new band director from out of state who had visited Oregon with his family the previous summer and fallen in love with the clean air and scenery. He quit before the end of the first semester, because after three months of Oregon winter his wife threatened to divorce him unless they packed up everything and moved back to their home state – which, I should mention, was California. 

Perhaps it was because I had such a treasure trove of hilarious anecdotes about Californians being the ultimate cold weather pusses that I didn’t pack any winter clothes for my move to LA. No coats, no sweatshirts, no blankets, no flannel sheets – if it was designed to provide a barrier against low temperatures while simultaneously trapping body heat to maintain warmth, I left it in my closet in Oregon. I was confident that whatever it was that passed for “cold” in California would feel downright pleasant after what I’d grown up with.

Earlier this week I woke up to go on my morning (er, afternoon) bike ride and checked the weather before walking out the door. When I saw that the temperature was 58 degrees I took off my helmet and returned my bicycle to its space behind one of the chairs in the living room, because 58 degrees is way too cold for a bike ride.

Around the house lately I’ve been wearing two sweatshirts – a grey zip-up I bought at Target last November when temperatures began to drop below 60 degrees at night, a white hoodie I brought home from Oregon last Christmas on top of that. When I stepped outside a moment ago I pulled up both hoods at once. It’s currently 53 degrees.

Last night I walked into a bar and used clumsy, numb, half-frozen fingers to pull up the weather app on my phone, which told me that the temperature outside was holding steady at 46 degrees – or, according to that Californian freshman two years ago, two degrees above the temperature at which one gets frostbite.

These temperatures are so severe that people in LA have actually started talking about the weather instead of traffic for once. Newscasters are giving it the full weather emergency treatment, showing a lot of maps of the Southland blanketed by an ominous blue blob that supposedly represents cold temperatures. They’re already calling it The Big Chill.

Meanwhile, everybody in Oregon is laughing at us as they suffer through record low temperatures and snowfall unlike anything I ever saw while I lived there. It was -2 degrees in Eugene yesterday. Negative two degrees!

Meanwhile, everybody in the rest of the country is laughing at Oregon – snow is falling at a rate of one inch per hour in Maryland, and in northern Minnesota they just recorded a low of -35 degrees.  

Before the Crocodile Dundee-style “That’s not cold – this is cold!” circlejerk on Facebook reaches critical mass, I want to offer what I, a former cold weather snob, have come to accept about the winter:

When a person says, “I’m cold,” they’re not saying, “I am colder now than any other human being has ever been before,” they’re saying, “I’m cold.” The temperature anywhere else is irrelevant at that point, because even if it’s much colder in New Hampshire or Antarctica or Monaco that doesn’t make it any less cold where you’re currently standing.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go buy a third sweatshirt, because I don’t want to run the risk of getting frostbite when I fly back to Oregon next week.

Truman Capps’ hair does not lock in as much heat as you’d expect.