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Friday, January 03, 2014

My Winter Decathlon

The Biggest Chill Dept.: I so enjoy the hot buttered rum recipe reproduced below (from a piece written for a 1990 Schenectady Gazette winter tab) that I threw it into a Metroland piece many years later. But the book it comes from, Northwest Passage, would make for some fine stuck-in-the-house reading on a day like the frigid one currently surrounding us, so I’m going to dig through the stacks and read it again.


ONCE THE HILL BEHIND MY HOUSE disappears beneath its winter-long blanket of snow, many of the neighbors break out toboggans and sleds and dot the side of it, descending in crazy zigzags. Others strap their limbs into skates and whirl on the frozen water I can see from my window.

19 Feb. 2000 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
I don’t sled, skate, toboggan or ski. That’s because winter offers me another sport, even more demanding in its regulations, a sport I play for the entire season. It’s the simple challenge of staying warm.

Sure, it’s my fault for living in a drafty old farmhouse, but I accept the fact that year after year the onset of winter will sound a silent starter’s pistol: On your mark. Get set. Get toasty!

The rules are simple. Maintain a surrounding warmth of at least 80 degrees, and don’t get a stiff neck at night. The component elements consist of combinations of clothing, insulation, fuel, and alcoholic beverages.

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the initial event takes place in the bathroom, when those first brisk days of fall send their chilled fingers to find you just as you’ve stepped out of the shower. That’s when the space heater is broken out of its summer wrapper and installed near the sink. And my wife, who usually decries my use of electricity as indulgent and ecologically unsound, makes not the slightest murmur of protest as I prepare for heated ablutions. She’ll be there next. A clear win for me, although it’s really a pre-season warm-up.

Clothing rotation follows, bringing the sweaters and other woolens out of their mothballs and packing the short-sleeved stuff in their place. This is when I discover that another lazy summer of too many cookouts has caused the sweaters to ride up around my middle, and they’ll have to be replaced with items from the 2XL bin. Give winter the point for a tie score.

Nights send the thermometer plummeting, so the bedroom hosts the next encounter, a lengthy bout of Find the Draft. The bay windows are the obvious choice, and each year improves upon the last. Packing insulation in the window pockets seems to work until the next bout of frigid gusts, and then there’s the feeling that the cold is coming up through the floor from the living room. A chance visit to the bedroom closet suggests that it’s a leak from the attic, and insulation is duly applied. But this is a process that never will end, and can only be scored as a draw.

 A break for disaster next: what will this year bring? And can it top last year’s spectacular frozen-pipes-on-Christmas diversion? Difficult to judge the outcome of that one, which took us during the course of the morning from heat tape to space heater (a temporary bathroom sacrifice, but no point loss because I couldn’t shower anyway) to the radical and possibly illegal use of a propane torch. The old galvanized pipe stood up to it and the ice plug melted. That section then got a permanent wrap of heat tape, but it also required installation of a new electrical outlet. It was an all-day project. Give winter the edge.

This year we’re laying in extra heating tape and a spare thermocoupling for the hot water heater. The oil burner has been inspected and the chimney swept clean. We have candles and a kerosene heater at the ready for the invariable power failure. We’re demanding points for preparedness, but winter is never that kind. Just as cold wind will seek out those unnoticeable cracks to sail through, so will winter’s disasters find your points of vulnerability.

We put in an extra supply of pets this year with the knowledge that there’s nothing like dogs and overcoats to get the bed heated quickly, and if all else fails we’ll simply spend the day under the covers.

Cabin fever begins to hit late in January, which is when I go out for my annual bicycle ride. The neighbors watch for this one, which has nothing to do with the travel itself: it’s how I’m outfitted for the event. Closest to the skin are my sturdy duofold long johns, top and bottom. A pair of cotton slacks and an extra-large pair of jeans keep the legs happy, while above I wear a cotton turtleneck, flannel shirt, cable-knit sweater and down jacket with the hood cinched tight. Two pairs of socks under good sturdy boots; a pair of socks under my mittens.

This is a way of thumbing my nose at the temperature, although that’s a difficult feat literally to accomplish given the fact that I can hardly bend my elbows or knees in that get-up. The ride takes me only a few hundred yards down the street and back, and serves as an excuse for another event: warming the toes.

Extremities take the most abuse from winter’s chill, and can only be warmed from the inside. And there’s no better agent for that than hot buttered rum. A character in Kenneth Roberts’ novel  “Northwest Passage” has a splendid description of the effect of the stuff, properly prepared:

“. . . It ain’t a temporary drink, like most drinks. That’s on account of the butter. No matter how much you drink of anything else, it’ll wear off in a day or so; but you take enough hot buttered rum and it’ll last you pretty near as long as a coonskin cap.”

Although the accompanying recipe was for rum by the bucketful, I’ve worked it down to these by-the-glass proportions:

2 oz. good dark rum
8 oz. cider
1 clove
1 shard of a cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon butter
lemon twist

Set the cider to boil. Throw everything else into a large, sturdy mug. Pour the boiling cider on top. Drink quickly.

It also has the pleasant effect of making the overall score seem less critical, which is a good thing around February, when winter is at its most endless. That’s the time to go and look at the air conditioner you have in storage and try to convince yourself that you actually felt a need to use the thing not so long ago. A psychological point for that one.

Finally, no matter how often it happens, spring arrives with charming unexpectedness. A couple of blankets are peeled off the bed; a pane of triple-track is lifted and a screen lowered into its place.

The rich will be returning soon from warmer climes to bask along with us under summer’s sultry sun, but their exaltations are false and not to be taken seriously. Unlike them, we’ve earned our warmth.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 20 October 1990

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