Lileks: With an arctic blast, knowing it can be worse is cold comfort

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 12, 2013 - 10:39 PM
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A semi-frosted bicylist makes his way across the Stone Arch Bridge amid dangerously cold temperatures Dec. 11, 2013 in Minneapolis.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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We were sitting in a nice little St. Paul burger shop the other evening, and I noticed something: Everyone was wearing a parka.

Oh, the cafe had the heat on; the waitress wasn’t going around the tables with a flamethrower, saying, “Need a warm-up on those fries?” But every time the door opened it was like a gust of razor blades from the Yukon.

You wore your coat to keep your teeth from chattering, which makes it difficult to eat a hamburger. There’s timing involved.

So I was amused when I saw a headline on a news website: IT’S COLD, BUT IT COULD BE WORSE.

Yes, of course. If the sun winked out at noon the weatherperson would say, “Well, high of 4 above today, with overnight lows dipping down to minus-200 degrees in the Arrowhead. By noon tomorrow the heat of the Earth will quickly dissipate until we hit 439-below. At that point all molecular activity ceases, so expect a slow drive home.”

It could be like the winter of 1996, which was colder, but information like that is akin to hitting your thumb with a hammer and thinking, “When I did the same thing in 1987, it hurt more.” Doesn’t change the present situation.

It was worse when glaciers covered much of the state. They moved slowly; they were no surprise to anyone. They didn’t blow the Glacier Sirens when they saw one 50 miles off. If a glacier caught the bottom of your mammoth-skin coat, of course, you’d be worried. Help! It’s got me! It’ll run right over me in six to seven years! Help!

Yes, it could be worse. You can’t really complain about the brutal purity of December thus far; it’s preferable to the glum slump of a brown Christmas. But you have to feel bad for people who are spending their first winter here and panic the first time they can’t feel their feet. Folks get used to having all their toes report in as “present,” I suppose.

Well, newcomer, up here most kids lose their pinkie toe, or “baby toe,” by the time they’re 6. Under the pillow for the Toe Fairy, who’s usually depicted as a fat little guy wearing a ski mask. Adorable. Just head over to Prosthetic Toes ‘R’ Us at the Mall of America. They got those loyalty cards: nine punches and the 10th one’s free.

It could be worse, and it will be worse. When you get into bed the sheets will feel like pieces of waxed paper you stuck in the fridge for an hour. When you get in the car in the morning and fire it up, a sudden gust of frigid air blows out because you forgot to turn off the heat when you parked, and you think there has to be a word for that. Something long and German. Schaudenblasten. Ventenschmertz.

Then it will get better.

In the meantime, how to make it more enjoyable? Simple. The other day I read a brief history of urban squirrels. Previously regarded as little more than edible rats, they were introduced into parks as living ornaments, capering critters who provided amusement and moral instruction. City dwellers would reconnect with unscripted nature, and boys would learn to feed them and appreciate their role instead of beaning them on the head with slingshot marbles.

Why can’t we do the same with penguins? Why not import thousands of penguins and put them in the parks for the duration of winter? Everyone loves them. They’re much better at PR than wild turkeys. (Whenever I see a wild turkey on the lawn, they seem like sullen outlaws. You’ll never roast me, copper.) There’s not a soul so begrinched he wouldn’t smile if he went out in the morning to fetch the paper and saw a penguin on the steps. Who wouldn’t want to look out the back door and see 12 penguins, hoping you’d toss out some herring?

Absolutely no one would complain if they were late for work because there were penguins in the road. That’s all you’d have to say when you got in. “Sorry — penguins.” And everyone would say, Awwww.

For a few years, at least.

But what about summer? Maybe they’d like it. Maybe the lakes would be full of penguins lolling on their backs, drifting with the waves. Maybe we’d discover that penguins love to eat zebra mussels and emerald ash borer beetles, and have a knack for leaping into the air to intercept Asian carp.

At that point we’d be talking a ceremony at the Capitol where the governor drapes the Medal of Ecological Salvation around the neck of a penguin, and there’d be serious discussion about putting them on the state flag.

If they want to migrate south, well, they’re not good at flying, which seems like one of those bird things they should have nailed down, but maybe they just need help getting aloft. So we build them a ramp. Folks in Iowa would look up to the skies in April and see flocks of migrating penguins as a sure sign spring has arrived.

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