We northerners expect and generally prepare for cold and darkness every winter but our mind-bodies seem to favor hot, bright summer days. My closet is crammed with high tech outerwear that lies dormant despite Mercury levels that have sunk to the teens. Sporadic urges to don layers of fleece and goose down are no match for a primordial desire to winter over within the heat radius of our fireplace. My MacBook Pro serves as a lap warmer. A muffled subconscious whisper is counseling me to get out of this rut or succumb to the Arctic Syndrome.
This is the season of the Arctic Stare, a look described by polar researchers as a 12 foot stare in a 10 foot room. During winter our minds periodically slide into fugue states. Our thoughts are as blank as empty sonnets. Many northerners describe winter moods as depressed and irritable. They go to bed early to avoid the boredom associated with long, dark evenings but have trouble sleeping. Folks dismiss absentmindedness as a symptom of Cabin Fever. Some feel lonely but don’t return calls or set up play dates. They get iced in.
The Blanchette Bridge carried me across the Missouri River on a recent frigid winter afternoon. A friend spied a tiny johnboat down on the river moving south amidst ice chunks. She shook her head, “What a fool. If anything happens in that cold water he’s dead in less than 60 seconds.”
I shuddered, “Like a cold fish?” I pictured dead fish spread evenly on mounds of crushed ice in seafood departments.
“No”, explained my friend, who happens to be an expert on all things that kill people. “Cold water at 50ºF causes ventricular fibrillation in people. The heart beats fast but erratic and fails to pump blood properly. This causes a massive heart attack and death. On the other hand, frigid waters trigger fish to relax and enter a phase called winter dormancy. They move very little but are not frozen. It’s different from hibernating but necessary for procreation.”
Freezing ambient air and water stir up the birds and bees?
Yes. Anyone who went to college north of the Mason Dixon line is familiar with winter dormancy. Undergrads hate to leave their snug, pheromone saturated burrows between winter solstice and spring equinox. Cold weather disturbs their heart rhythms. They become lethargic and fake hibernation by spending 12 to 18 hours at a crack sleeping. Youth have a different sense of time than bears that stick to their caves and avoid socializing until the spring thaw. Coeds are impatient with winter and seek the comfort of communal heat. They tend to rejuvenate long past nightfall on winter weekends. The Sirens of tweets and texts beckon even the most comatose of bedheads to rise from musky bunks. Tribes of sleepwalkers gather. Loud rhythmic music with a strong backbeat resets cardiac rhythms. Lips burn from quaffing high-octane liquids that slosh from one red solo cup to the next. Arctic stares melt into steamy lascivious looks. Warm embraces beget hot kisses that lead to quivering hearts. Birds fly. Bees buzz.
People aren’t meant to hibernate. The best antidote for Winter Over Syndrome – for those of us not fortunate enough to migrate to warmer climes – is to bundle up, get outside, and warm your heart by doing something nice for someone else. It beats lying dormant at the bottom of a river next to a cold fish.