The Cold War at Home
by Jerry DeNuccio
Each year, when the earth tilts 23.4 degrees away from the sun, a battle begins. It features no frontal assaults, no marching fire and charges, no close quarter skirmishes, no blitzkriegs—no bold and brazen tactics of any kind. It is, rather, guerrilla warfare, a furtive combination of shoot-and-scoot and sabotaging raids, covert insurgency, and just as covert counterinsurgency. The battle field is my house. The particular site of combat is the thermostat. My wife Kathy likes the temperature cool. I like it warm. Under cover of darkness, or when she is occupied in another room, I slink to the thermostat and execute a clandestine upping of the temperature. Under the same conditions, Kathy executes a stealth lowering. When my fingertips begin lose all sensation, I know I have been Yukoned. Kathy has maneuvered her way to the thermostat.
I have no tolerance for cold. During that time of year when the trees are “bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” the boughs aren’t the only thing to “shake against the cold.”
Every winter is my winter of discontent. I find no delight in the frolic geometry of frost pasted on my windows, no joy in the keening cantos of a furying north wind. The cold is neither bracing nor invigorating, and the only thing it stimulates is the galloping retreat of blood from my extremities. I dress not in layers, but in strata. When it’s cold, I wear a T-shirt, covered by a long-sleeve thermal T-shirt covered by a hoodie, covered by a winter jacket rated for 20 below zero. When it’s very cold, I add a full-length black leather coat given to me years ago by a rock-and-roller friend. When it’s cold, I wear two pairs of thinsulate-stuffed gloves, thermal socks, 40-below-zero-rated winter boots, and a wool knit cap under the hoodie’s hood. When it’s very cold, I add down mittens, another pair of thermal socks, and a fleece ear band.
And to that bundling, that upholstering in cold-repelling materials, I add, for its warming somatic echo, thoughts of dog-day summers, hot and humid, toilet-tank condensation hot, arm-sweat-on-the-table humid, the white-sunned swelter of July, the sultry embrace of August, the very basin of summer when simply forming a thought sprouts beads of forehead perspiration. Hamlet may have implored the heat to dry up his brains, but mine scamper lively enough. John Ruskin asserted that “there is no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather,” but, unless Ruskin means that bad is a different kind of good, I beg to differ. Cold–marrow-deep, blood-retreating-headlong-from-the-extremities cold–is bad, irredeemably bad, so bad that even Shelley’s hopefully prophetic “if Winter comes, can Spring be far behind” leaves me cold. In the bare-knuckled frigidity of now, spring’s promise of warmth to come seems galactically remote, a glint beyond even imaginative reach.
Of course, the cold war quietly rages on during the summer. Kathy likes the air conditioning at levels that slow molecular motion. I dislike wearing sweat pants and a sweater in the house when it’s flirting with equatorial temperatures outside. So slyly, oh so slyly, with ninja-like silence, I ratchet the temperature down, just a notch, then another notch, just a tad, just a smidge, thinking my ambient alterations so subtle she will never notice the difference. Of course, she does, and is less than sly, or subtle, at reversing my reversal. Really, the crevices of time before spring and fall gather the full strength of summer and winter are the only cease-fires in our relentless conflict.
No doubt age plays a major part in all this. Cold and old are longstanding fellow travelers. They never bicker. They maintain a shivery relation of goosebumpery—always have, always will. Mr. Old sets the stage: he slows my circulation and basic metabolic rate, thins my fat layer, toggles my hormones, haywires my chemistry and then, like some arrogant and audacious graffitist, attaches those pesky methyl tags to my DNA to mark his tissue-aging work. All the while, Mr. Cold has been circling, his orbit drawing ever closer, setting up bivouacs along the way, observing with relish the shocks that flesh is heir to, until, finally, the ground is ceded and he swaggers in with an icy sneer, gives Mr. Old a high five, and together they establish a permanent camp.
It can’t be helped. Biology writes a hack-proof script that we are compelled to follow. We are, as novelist William T. Vollman says, “shadowed by finitude’s despotism.” And it’s so despotic that it’s become a stereotype: old men grow colder; old women grow warmer. So Kathy and I wage surreptitious war at the thermostat. But here’s the thing: I hate following scripts. I hate conforming to a stereotype. I hate being average. I’d rather be special.
So, here’s my story, and I’m sticking to it: my unspecialness is special. I may be average, but I’m pretty darn good at being average.