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Coat Story by Steve Kieselstein
 

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  • I knew we were in for it the first winter we moved up here. I hadn't yet been able to relocate my law practice from down in White Plains, so for the first year I had jury-rigged a commute that was a little over three hours long. I learned during this experience among other things it apparently is possible to buy monthly commuter tickets on Amtrak. Such is the price of not listening to the little voice inside your head trying to explain that it's a bit unnatural to have to maintain commuter cars at two different train stations not just to get to work in the morning.

    My plan to quiet naysayers both in- and outside of my own head was to "use" my commuting time diligently typing away on my laptop computer, getting work done as we breezed past the Hudson River to our right on the morning trip down, and the incrementally smaller and less packed commuter lots on the early evening reverse trip back up. It's been a dozen years since I embarked on this adventure, and mostly what I remember about those trips was sleeping or at least trying to among the groups of other travelers with whom I did not fit in. There is a certain grouchy camaraderie among morning commuters dressed roughly the same, headed along roughly the same route to roughly the same destination. That was not me. I actually felt a bit of longing each day as strangers I would never know embarked and disembarked at Rhinecliff, or even Hudson, their quiet looks calling out to me that there is about as far as any reasonable person would commute. I likewise didn't fit with the New York City daytrippers, the other lawyers I imagined to have cases that afternoon before the Court of Appeals, or lunches with state senators they were poised to lobby, the artsy people with midweek days off out to find nature, the overdone parents who stutter-stepped like sheepherdering logrollers trying to shoo their disheveled children down the ricocheting aisle back to their discontinuous seats for the long ride on to Bufffalo or Chicago. But I digress.

    I am one of those people who always secretly loved the winter. I would listen to people complain about the cold that didn't seem cold enough to me, and root under my breath for snowfall accumulations that never seemed to meet forecaster predictions, as warm coastal air turned promising storm after storm into dreaded "snow changing to rain". Snow that did stick not just to the hoods of cars jammed together in front of our apartment building for alternate-side-of-the-street parking, but also to the actual streets and sidewalks, was soon stained gray by the relentless wheel and foot traffic. School cancellation levels of accumulation seemed unattainable. Rote weatherperson incantations of heavier snow "north and west of the City" seemed to promise a place that I could only imagine but would never get to visit.

    That all changed the November afternoon when my late wife and I sat at a coffee shop counter, worn out by the latest skirmish with our son's school district over special education services, and I said, almost as a dare, "why don't we just move to where your sister lives Upstate". Just like that. No thought about the friends we were leaving behind, or how I'd manage my practice, what it would actually be like living there, or any of it. A few weekends later we were making the two and a half hour drive to look at homes in my sister-in-law's neighborhood. Six months after that, in late February, we were moving in.
  • I won't even talk about the blizzard the night before my first commute and the ensuing legend of the key left behind, which is a story for another day. Or about my first "Niska Day", my suburban town's annual mid-May celebration of itself which I had looked forward to as my first experience as a resident of smaller town America, that is until my garage door grumbled open in a voice not unlike the downstate weather complainers I had left behind, to reveal snowflakes, the size and density of doilies, splattering the asphalt white. In May.

    For the first few years, whenever I came downstate for work, old friends and clients would debrief me at lunch about my experiences in the great north. "How much snow did you get? Really? Wow. How cold does it get?" They seemed to have the same weather wistfulness I had felt when I had lived in and near the City. All that had apparently changed now that I was living the northern life. I had turned into Admiral Peary.

    I came to feel that living further north was my birthright. They could take away the blocks of diverse and interesting restaurants, the pace and the energy, the density and tumult in which I had always felt was my lifeblood. The cold was mine now, and I intended to flaunt it.

    Dressing with less heavy clothing was less a fashion statement for me than an issue of personal thermodynamics. Those who know me know that my motor runs a little hot. Which is the euphemism I most frequently use to explain the fact that I tend to perspire a lot. At weddings. At social gatherings. In offices cool enough to prompt secretaries and paralegals to keep space heaters under their desks. I've never really put my finger on why. A native shyness perhaps. Maybe carrying a bit too much weight. Pores that are too small. Claustrophobia born of a few too many years sharing a too-small bedroom with my brother. Who knows. I've learned to live with it. You've got your coping mechanisms for life's little dislocations, and I've got mine. Hankies in pockets like small security blankets. Summer blends in winter. Cotton mesh in summer. And always white dress shirts over blues, for fear of reprising Albert Brooks's sweaty weekend anchor turn in "Broadcast News".

    And so it was that I decided to implement a new coat strategy. My theory was that if I was going to survivor the winters up here, I needed to toughen myself to the cold, and shift my wardrobe so that I could slip into the heavier stuff when we really hit the heart of the winter. I figured that if anyone was thermostatically suited for the transition, it was me. I began to go without a jacket altogether into the 50's and even 40's. "Didn't you bring a coat?" people would ask. "No," I would smile, "we don't really wear coats this early up in Albany," half-kidding, half not. They would smile back somewhat nervously, having to live with the doubt that they were tough enough to live where I did. Coats would be held back until the 30's and 20's, after which sweaters were added and lining zipped in. It was the perfect match of underdressedness for my overactive sweat glands. I had added a certain coolness to my often moist persona by, literally, being cooler. I travelled comfortably back and forth to New York City, a furry creature who had somehow rediscovered its long-lost migration path. I was in my element.
  • This winter, it has all come apart at the seams. It's been so cold most days that it's been almost impossible to go outdoors for any length of time. And so, it's been wall-to-wall winter coats and gloves every day that I can remember since late December, almost a month now. The pick-up ice hockey games on the ponds alongside the Mohawk River bike path will probably be in full swing this weekend, with no worries about whether the ice is strong enough. The ice on the driveway that I am pretty sure will never melt has the shiny hardness of volcanic glass. One late-December afternoon, back in New York City, I had to interrupt a walk up Sixth Avenue in my unprotected suit to buy a winter coat, which I wore out of the store even though the sleeves needed to be altered. I would not be having my own induction into the Explorers Club any time soon. The north has lost its chilly specialness this winter. No one wants to hear about it. It's cold everywhere. And so it is that I find myself considering the only logical next step, a move some day even further north. I recently learned how to refill a bird feeder while navigating an icy bank of a backyard waterfall which, it turns out, never freezes completely, no matter how cold it gets. My girlfriend recently taught me how to build and maintain a fire in a wood stove, apparently one of the many responsibilities of living where the cold requires more than just conversation, but effort. There's no sense pretending any more. It may be time to shop for a heavier coat.
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