Notes from the Vortex

As you are reading this, the weather phenomenon none of us had heard of before has, hopefully, begun to spin its way out of the Twin Cities. However, the Arctic (or Polar) Vortex has been nothing if not instructive. Scratch that. First off, it has been damn cold. THEN it has been instructive.  Now that I am a resident of the state that laughs at cold weather – while also being the first to cancel school statewide in anticipation of the Vortex – I have been doing my best to soak in the lessons. Foremost, I’ve learned that there is no substitute for maintaining good humor and positive perspective at these extreme times. Here are a few other things I’ve learned, filtered through my (mostly intact? bizarre? macabre?) sense of humor:

Never shut off your car. Or really any vehicle, when the temperatures are dropping to -30 degrees. I understand even jet batteries die when it gets that cold. My car, which was driven and got good and warm at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday night was dead as a doornail by 7:00 a.m. on Monday. My co-worker’s car started right up, though. Her trick? Wake her husband to start and run the engine for 10-15 minutes every two hours overnight. Her solution will never work for me, though. First, I have no husband to force into the unenviable role of starter-bitch. Second, I love my neighborhood, but I am not that comfortable venturing out alone at 3 a.m. to sit in my vehicle. Third, I actually sleep at night. A friend posted this meme, which says it all, on my Facebook page:


There is no bad weather, only bad clothing. I had never heard this phrase before but it, apparently, is the state motto. Kinda catchy. And I almost – though not quite – believe it. In fact, I’ll buy it right down to about -5, at which point I believe bad weather officially exists. I have successfully managed, by combining layers of inner- and outer- wear, plastic bags, and rubber electrician glove liners, to be outside at those temps for short spurts of activity – without feeling like my toes and other assorted appendages were about to fall off. I can even ride a bike around the block within acceptable levels of discomfort.

I have been told that clothing (and boots) specifically designed to protect against even more frigid temperatures exist. However, they might as well be mythical as far as I am concerned. I don’t have a house on which to take out a second mortgage to finance such attire. Or an elf queen of Lothlorien to gift me any.

plastic bags go over wool socks, under boots

Beware the “cascade effect“.  On Saturday night, the heat went out in my apartment. As did the electricity in all of my outlets except for the kitchen. I wasn’t home at the time, but when I returned, let’s just say it was a dark and very cold night. And that’s when I became familiar with the cascade effect, which, put simply is this: as soon as the first thing goes wrong in extreme weather conditions, prepare yourself for the next several to hit in rapid succession. No heat, no electric, no vehicle, AAA only taking calls for stranded motorists in dangerous situations, no mythical cold-gear so you can walk the 7.4 miles to work (or try to figure out the bus routes for the first time). Eventually, my landlord brought me space heaters, which blew all the circuits again. My friend and native Minnesotan, Kathe, predicted these things. I ought to have listened. Forewarned = fore-armed.

Responding to the “cascade effect”. IMPORTANT NOTE: it is actually warm in bed!

If you can afford it, invest in ski goggles. It doesn’t matter if you never intend to hit the slopes. If you wear glasses, it is impossible to cover your face AND see out of them at the same time. In temps low enough to freeze exposed skin in seconds, this presents a conundrum. Yesterday, the temps rose to 0 and I went for a walk in the beautiful sunshine, glasses in my coat pocket. There were icicles, formed by condensation from my breath, dangling from my eyelashes and bangs when I finally came back inside. The delicate skin around my eyes is chapped and red (I toned it down with green eye shadow). Amazingly, if it keeps me warm I don’t mind being seen wandering the city looking roughly like a yeti about to rob a bank (there are others of this species about town – we nod when we meet on the sidewalk). Goggles would just add a little extra touch to the ensemble. Yeti bling, if you will.

Try to have friends. Preferably kind ones. All joking aside, friends are vital to living through extreme weather. They offer practical advice (“Try to stay warm!”), actual assistance (rides to and from work), and emotional support (“Just checking in to make sure you haven’t frozen yet!”). It takes a lot of energy to put on three pairs of pants, two shirts, and extra socks every time you go out to retrieve the mail. Not all of us feel equal to that on our own. Friends are definitely my favorite survival gear.



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