Thursday, December 15, 2016

My foul-weather friends

Last week, when the outside temperatures were getting very cold (as opposed to this week, when they are getting very, very cold), I rode my bike downtown as usual, to serve breakfast at our local soup kitchen.  It's a thrilling sort of wonderfulness, breezing through a dark city so early in the day that I have the streets pretty much all to myself.  Just about every time I make that ride, I feel unaccountably happy just to be alive and awake, and I also feel yet again that I'm so lucky that I wound up living in a great city like mine.

So it tickled me that all the other volunteers and staff, who have seen me riding my bike every week for the last year and a half, were amazed that I would ride my bike in the cold.  When they pestered me about this, I used what has become one of my family's favorite Mr. Money Mustache lines:  "There's this wonderful invention; it's called clothes. You put them on your body, and then you stay warm."  Fellow servers kept returning to the fact that it's very cold outside, and I said "Yes, I know; that's why I decided not to wear my bathing suit here!"  They asked me how far I had to bike to get there; when I told them "2 miles," you'd think I had told them I had swum here from France.  What a distance to travel!  How could a person ever do that?!?

For the record, I truly believe biking two miles in the cold is more comfortable than driving two miles in the cold. I have experience with both.

When I first got my job here at my college, I was a single mom with a two-year-old daughter and I lived a mile and a half from where I work. The only thing the cold car had going for it, comfort wise, is that it blocked the wind.  Those winter mornings that I drove my daughter to her preschool (next to my work), she cried from the cold the whole way there, even though I dressed her in as much warm clothing as I could, and even though I then wrapped her in blankets.  That car ride was danged uncomfortable, not just because the weather outside was cold, but the entire car itself was a giant Cold Sink, one that sucked all the warmth from our bodies into the icy seats and frigid metal frame that surrounded us. Even if we had driven far enough that the engine could warm up, and the air inside the car started to become bearable, every other interior part of the car would hang onto its coldness for a long time.  Worse yet, our bodies were strapped into immobility, and we couldn't move around to generate muscle heat.

For a two-mile trip, the car didn't even allow us to spend less time in the cold weather:  what with walking to the car, getting my  bags in the car, and then parking and walking from a parking lot to her day-care/my office, the time spent outside of a warm building was just about the same either way.  Nowadays when I go on a two-mile trip, I put my backpack on indoors, and my biking starts and ends at the doors of where I'm going.

So the bike isn't much colder than the car.  In fact because I'm exercising (using my legs to crank up the ol' body heat as well as to move me along those dark city streets) my internal thermostat feels like it's at a much happier place.  That's why I think that tooling along on the bike is actually more comfortable than shivering in an automotive straitjacket.

Not that I'm a total nut about cold-weather biking, mind you.  The weather, as I've mentioned earlier, is currently changing from "very cold" (freezing temps) to "very, very cold" (single-digit temps).  And just the other day, after biking a half-mile to my dentist and back through very cold temps, I wimped out and decided not to bike the extra four miles over to our blood bank (nor back again, while drained of blood).  I didn't drive, either -- instead, I walked the two blocks to my office and caught up on paperwork.  And don't think that I didn't mentally beat myself up, pitting my own comfort against saving the life of a sick or injured person!  But despite the self-flagellation, I don't know when I'm going to go give blood, because four-and-four miles through the increasingly (very)^2 cold December weather is wigging me out a bit.

That being said, the older I get, the happier I get about being outside in winter.  It's not that my body is changing, it's that I've discovered clothes.

The first clothing epiphany I had was in graduate school when I accidentally bought a pair of humongously thick-soled Earth Shoes. The shoes were so ugly that even the other math grad geeks made fun of me for them . . . but for the first time ever in the post-frostbite portion of my life, my feet were warm in winter.  Ugly be damned: I could walk outside in January and not be miserable!  So even though my current shoe selection is much less of a fashion wreck, I make sure I have a good selection of thick-soled boots to get me through the winter.

Strategy:  I spend a bunch of time during the summer yard-sale season rounding out my boot wardrobe, making sure I have 3 or 4 pairs of potentially worthy boots waiting for me come December.  This usually means I buy a "new" pair of boots every year or two, so my annual boot budget alternates between $0 and $5.  Having four pairs of boots feels a bit like luxurious overkill, but I've learned I can never tell in summer which boots will hold up in snow and slush until there's actual snow and slush, and having a good selection of back-ups keeps me from having to resort to those pricey "thrift" stores where boots can cost a crazy $7 or more. I'm currently rocking a pair of Ugg boots I snagged with a bunch of other stuff in a "fill a bag for $5" yard sale.  

And speaking of clothes: tubes.  Tube-like headbands that go on my ears are, like, 50 times better than a hat, for reasons that I can't at all understand.  Tube-like things that go around my neck and keep the wind off my neck have made all sorts of outdoor excursions more comfy.  Somehow, I didn't know about these tube things until a few years ago, and now I've become a bit of a compulsive tube collector.

Also, the older that I get, the more I take to heart the wisdom of layered clothes.  Right now, as I type this, I'm wearing purple warm tights under my jeans, and I'm also wearing three different knit tops, one over the other.  I used to think layers made me look like a Girl Scout (probably because I first got lectured about layers while I was backpacking a lot with the Girl Scouts, and the layers we wore were waffle-weave long-johns topped with flannel shirts -- imagine that).  But nowadays, I like how the different layers add more color to my outfit, and of course they also help me stay warm.  Plus, I get to wear even more of my favorite clothes all at the same time.  Win!

So there you go.  Warm clothes have become my foul-weather friends, appearing exactly when I need them the most, and assuring me that they've got my back even when the rest of the world is giving me the cold shoulder.  I'm going to go cuddle up with another sweater right now.


  1. Another great post! Here's to layering clothes to stay warm in the winter: Hip, Hip, Hooray!

  2. I laughed through your entire second paragraph!

    Thanks for the good ideas on keeping warm. It never gets really cold where I live (rarely below freezing, almost never below 20 F), but I'm wimpy about cold. So I'm now wearing 2 layers inside. I don't need much more outside (because of moving). I've never tried the tubular fashions; I do like hats and scarves but am definitely open to better ideas.

    Also, I used to live up north and definitely had trouble keeping my feet warm outside (even with movement). It's good to know that thick soles are something to try.