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In the Bleak Midwinter

Philip Terzian, cold man

Jan 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 18 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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People are entitled to complain about bias in the media, but I’m largely indifferent to the problem. This is not because “liberal bias” doesn’t exist—I’ve been a journalist for 40 years and lifelong witness—but because it is so pervasive, and so impervious to challenge, that it is hardly worth mentioning. One might just as usefully complain about the weather. 

Cartoon of a man looking very happy in the snow

David Clark

Or, as I prefer, about weathermen/women. I am speaking here of the meteorologists on the local news, the smiling, pivoting, late-evening forecasters who point at places on transparent maps, and keep us in a high-pressure state of anxiety about low-pressure systems coming in from the Great Lakes. I mean, I enjoy the geography lessons—Mobile is on the Gulf, Long Island is the storm-system gateway to New England—but I frankly resent their warm-weather bias. Moreover, it is just as widespread, and nearly as infuriating to me, as the other kind of bias.

It takes several forms. Weather-men automatically assume that their viewers welcome spring-like weather, or unseasonably high temperatures, or spend much of the year impatiently awaiting beach weekends. Eternal sunshine is an occasion for thanksgiving, cold and clouds for mourning. Snow is a horrific imposition. 

I am a suburban commuter, and so I have appropriately mixed feelings about snow. But beyond that I am almost wholly alienated from the weathermen’s worldview. I am disappointed, not delighted, when record-breaking warm temperatures are recorded in January. I have no interest in acknowledging hot weather by motoring, lemming-like, to the Atlantic coastline, there to bake in the sun and drink Orange Julius. I am much more excited by the prospect of breaking my Chesterfield coat out of mothballs than my Bermuda shorts. I would rather don a tweed suit than a bathing suit.

I am, in short, an enthusiast of cold weather—a wintry personage, in literary terms. This does not necessarily mean that I long to reside (Massachusetts, Michigan, the Great Plains, etc.) where winter is the default season—even I welcome the first hummingbird of spring—but it does mean my internal calendar is upside down: I come alive in December and would rather hibernate in July. 

The nice thing about the Middle Atlantic region, where I have spent most of my life, is that it is a kind of meteorological via media: The winters are cold but not severely so, the summers are hot but not unbearably so. There is a definable fall and spring. True, Washington, D.C., where I work, reverts to its swamp origins in midsummer, and is a cesspool of humidity. But the Washington summer conforms more or less to the solstice—where in Savannah, say, or Biloxi, it’s sultry in May. (And it is an urban myth that in the pre-air-conditioning era diplomats at the British embassy got tropical pay.)

Most people gladden at the sight of the first daffodil poking its head through the soil; to me, it is an augury of heat, sweat, lawn care, and copperheads. By contrast, I am pleased when the leaves begin to fall and the days grow short. There is something curiously exhilarating about going home in darkness, dark clouds racing across a leaden sky, the wind-chill factor beginning to be calculated. 

By early December, when the fallen leaves have been raked away, and the flowers and bushes retreat, I feel a kind of obsessive-compulsive ecstasy: The ground is hard, buildings look austere, and yesterday’s overgrown landscape is comfortably neat. I am standing at the threshold of three, maybe four, unbroken months of bleakness. The days are windy, frigid, and icy; at night, the air feels as cold as iron. Even Nature, in its fashion, shows admirable reserve: The chipmunks are hidden away but squirrels abound, and goldfinches are suddenly and fashionably dusky. 

I used to argue, in my childhood, that winter cold is less impractical than summer heat. You can huddle, build a fire, seek out the sun at noon. If you’re cold, you can always add layers of clothing; if you’re hot, there’s a social limit to what you can remove. But now I would go further. Walking around the block in August is an enervating experience, rewarded with perspiration. Walking around the block in February is a conscious pleasure, the frozen face offset by the snugly bundled carcass. A warm bath in freezing weather, beside an open window, is bliss.

Is all of this a genuine sensation, or the physical manifestation of perversity? As one who always roots for the bad guy in movies, and prefers Schoenberg to Mozart, I do not think my affection for winter misplaced. Or maybe it’s something deeper than that: the chill of the consciousness of death. In any case, alive and cold, I’m happy.

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